Conservationists believed they had succeeded in safeguarding the forests. But the animals are disappearing

Dawn breaks on a tropical forest. Conservationists have protected the trees from the bite of the chain saw, and under the dense canopy, all seems primordial and pristine. But something is missing. Dawn normally brings a symphony of sound. But here there is only silence. No raucous cries of monkeys. No trilling avian melodies. No rustling in the underbrush. The animals are largely gone.

By 2020, this silent dawn could be occurring almost anywhere in the world. Indeed, such ''empty'' forests already have begun to appear, in countries from Laos to Zaire. The cause is simple: Humans are killing the animals. Whether by snare or spear, trap or gun, people are taking a staggering toll on anything that can be eaten or sold for food or medicine. Wildlife biologists are only starting to tally the cost, but estimates range from up to 24 million animals killed each year in the Brazilian Amazon to 600,000 pounds of wild meat taken annually from Korup National Park in West Africa alone. Hunting is thought to be responsible for more than one-quarter of all known extinctions where a cause can be attributed. ''We've done a lot in stopping the loss of habitat. And we thought years ago that would end the battle,'' says field biologist Alan Rabinowitz of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). ''But it didn't. We didn't foresee this relentless exploitation.''

To conservationists struggling to protect a natural world already reeling from such threats as population growth, deforestation, and pollution, the rising slaughter adds a formidable challenge for the next century. The underlying causes include the growing numbers and Westernization of forest-dwelling tribes. To that add three other factors: the influx of ranchers and settlers, the building of logging roads that make remote areas accessible, and the enormous value of the natural-medicine trade, where a bagged rhino can bring in more money than locals could otherwise earn in a lifetime. ''You are not going to repopulate forests with wildlife unless you remove the people,'' says John W. Terborgh, a Duke University biologist.

SEED SPREADERS. The effects of hunting go far beyond just the species being killed. Take the lemurs out of Madagascar, a recent study shows, and 20 different trees in the forest could disappear because their seeds are no longer being spread. In parts of India, tigers are suffering from lack of prey, which is being killed by humans instead. ''We may be holding on to the forest, but we are losing the animals that make the forest function,'' says WCS biologist John Robinson.

There is some hopeful news, however, as a few organizations and governments are taking action. Responding to research by the WCS's Elizabeth Bennett, for instance, the government of Sarawak, Malaysia's largest state, has ended the commercial trade in wildlife, limited shotgun-shell sales, and closed off logging roads when logging has been completed. ''We have to be optimistic or else we'd give up entirely,'' says Bennett.

By John Carey

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