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Sci Adv. 2016 Oct 12;2(10):e1600936. eCollection 2016 Oct.

Empty forest or empty rivers? A century of commercial hunting in Amazonia.

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Department of Ecology, National Institute of Amazonian Research, Manaus, Brazil.; Wildlife Conservation Society Brasil, Manaus, Brazil.
Department of Statistics, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.
Department of Ecology, Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, Brazil.
School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.
Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA.
Department of Ecology, National Institute of Amazonian Research, Manaus, Brazil.
Department of Anthropology, Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Belém, Brazil.


The Amazon basin is the largest and most species-rich tropical forest and river system in the world, playing a pivotal role in global climate regulation and harboring hundreds of traditional and indigenous cultures. It is a matter of intense debate whether the ecosystem is threatened by hunting practices, whereby an "empty forest" loses critical ecological functions. Strikingly, no previous study has examined Amazonian ecosystem resilience through the perspective of the massive 20th century international trade in furs and skins. We present the first historical account of the scale and impacts of this trade and show that whereas aquatic species suffered basin-wide population collapse, terrestrial species did not. We link this differential resilience to the persistence of adequate spatial refuges for terrestrial species, enabling populations to be sustained through source-sink dynamics, contrasting with unremitting hunting pressure on more accessible aquatic habitats. Our findings attest the high vulnerability of aquatic fauna to unregulated hunting, particularly during years of severe drought. We propose that the relative resilience of terrestrial species suggests a marked opportunity for managing, rather than criminalizing, contemporary traditional subsistence hunting in Amazonia, through both the engagement of local people in community-based comanagement programs and science-led conservation governance.


Amazonian historical ecology; commercial and subsistence hunting; empty forest; hide and skin trade; hunting sustainability; neotropical wildlife; refuges; source-sink dynamics; wildlife conservation; wildlife resilience

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