Biologist turned entrepreneur Donald Perry has made it possible for tourists, students and scientists alike to explore the biological wonderland that thrives at the top of the rain forest, a realm he calls the “Arboreal Continent”.
The tree tops of tropical rain forests are a treasure trove of biodiversity, home to 40 per cent of all species found on our planet. But accessing the canopy presents challenges and means that an estimated 75 per cent or more of these millions of species remain unknown to science.
Riding a tram into the canopies is exceptionally good for nature in that the tourists are controlled. Foot traffic can cause terrible damage, particularly erosion. I like to say that here we put the people in the cage, not the animals!
Thanks to Donald Perry's ingenuity, however, this fabulously complex world has been brought within touching distance. By developing various research vehicles over the years, Perry has overcome difficulties in studying the flora and fauna of these canopy communities.
In the 1970s Perry pioneered an interconnected web of ropes strung between treetops that became the world’s first canopy zipline. But the harness and pulley system required scientists to be extremely athletic. Next he built the Automated Web for Canopy Exploration (AWCE) using a stainless steel cable, a rigid steel cage and wireless controls, for which he won a Rolex Award. But tourists wanted to come along for the ride, too, so Perry developed the Rain Forest Aerial Tram in Costa Rica, the first zero-gauge cableway and the world’s first canopy ski-lift, with virtually no impact on nature.
He is currently spearheading an international fund-raising campaign to make the canopy accessible to physically challenged people. Perry’s Ecotram is a self-driven mobility device – much like a golf cart on a cable – that can be enjoyed by everyone.
Proportion of world species found in tropical forest canopies