World’s 10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots

These woods have all lost 90 percent or more of their original habitat.

(Photo: Ariadne Van Zandbergen/Getty Images)

Dec 7, 2012· 4 MIN READ

The United Nations declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests to focus the world’s attention on the need to increase the protection of forests and make sure that their high importance for biodiversity conservation, climate stabilization and economic development is not undervalued, said Conservation International.

To mark the occasion, Conservation International, which works in nearly 40 countries around the world, highlighted the ten most at-risk forested hotspots around the world. These forests have all lost 90 percent or more of their original habitat and each harbor at least 1500 endemic plant species (species found nowhere else in the world). If these forests are lost, those endemic species are also lost forever. These forests potentially support the lives of close to one billion people who live in or around them, and directly or indirectly depend on the natural resources forest ecosystems provide.

The World’s 10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots are: Indo-Burma, New Caledonia, Sundaland, Philippines, Atlantic Forest, Mountains of Southwest China, California Floristic Province, Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa, Madagascar & Indian Ocean Islands and Eastern Afromontane.

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Forests overall cover only 30 percent of our planet’s area and yet they are home to 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. They also sustain the livelihoods for 1.6 billion people, who directly depend on healthy forests for income. The trees, flowers, animals and microorganisms found in forests form a complex web of life. The interactions between the species and the ecosystems in them function as natural factories of some of our most basic needs, like clean air, healthy soils, medicines, crop pollination and fresh water.

The role of forests in stabilizing the climate must also be increasingly recognized, as emissions resulting from deforestation represent approximately 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and they are superior stores of carbon. The World’s 10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots store over 25 gigatons of carbon, helping to clean air and cope with the already inevitable effects of climate change.

“Forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate to give room to pastures, agricultural land, mineral exploitation and sprawling urban areas, but by doing so we are destroying our own capacity to survive,” said Olivier Langrand, CI’s international policy chief. “Forests must be seen as more than just a group of trees. Forests give us vital benefits. They already play an enormous economic role in the development of many countries as a source of timber, food, shelter and recreation, and have an even greater potential that needs to be realized in terms of water provision, erosion prevention and carbon sequestration.”

In addition to their significance to biodiversity and climate stabilization, forests have been increasingly important in the provision of fresh water on a global scale. Over three quarters of the world’s accessible fresh water comes from forested watersheds and two thirds of all major cities in developing countries depend on surrounding forests for their supply of clean water.

Tracy Farrell, Senior Director Freshwater Conservation Program at Conservation International, said: “As the global population is projected to grow from 6 to 9 billion people over the next 30 years, the access to water will only get increasingly more difficult if millions of hectares of tropical forests continue to be burned each year. Other than expensive desalinization plants, we haven’t yet found a way to increase our supplies of fresh water, so we need to protect the remaining forests around the world if we want to keep our sources of fresh water.”

“During this International Year of Forests, we strongly encourage countries to take a new look at the long-term value of managing and protecting their natural forests, which are globally important assets,” added Langrand. “Healthy forests are an important part of the natural capital and offer us the most cost-effective means of confronting the many environmental challenges of climate change and increased demand for forest product.

1. Indo-Burma

The rivers and floodplain wetlands of this hotspot are tremendously important for the local people and for the conservation of birds, freshwater turtles and fish, including some of the largest freshwater fishes in the world. The Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River are habitats for the Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and the Jullien’s golden carp (Probarbus jullieni). Aquatic ecosystems are under intense pressure in many areas of this hotspot. Freshwater floodplain swamps and wetlands are destroyed by draining for wet rice cultivation.

Rivers have been dammed to generate electricity, resulting in flooding of sandbars and other habitats that would normally be exposed during the dry season, with severe impacts on nesting bird and turtle species. The conversion of mangroves to shrimp aquaculture ponds, overfishing and the use of destructive fishing technique are also significant problems to the coastal and freshwater ecosystems. Today, only five percent of the original habitat remains.

2. New Caledonia

New Caledonia is one of the smallest hotspots in the world (the size of New Jersey). This group of islands is located in the South Pacific at the southern extremity of the Melanesian region, 1,200 kilometers east of Australia. New Caledonia is the home of no less than five endemic plant families. It claims the world’s only parasitic conifer and nearly two-thirds off the world’s species of Araucaria trees, all of which are endemic. Nickel mining, forest destruction and invasive species threaten fauna like the kagu, an Endangered bird with a distinctive crest that is the only surviving member of its family. Only five percent of its original habitat remains.

3. Sundaland

The Sundaland hotspot covers the western half of the Indo-Malayan archipelago, an arc of some 17,000 equatorial islands, and is dominated by two of the largest islands in the world: Borneo and Sumatra. Its spectacular flora and fauna are succumbing to the explosive growth of industrial forestry and to the international animal trade that claims tigers, monkeys and turtle species for food and medicine in other countries. Populations of the orangutan, found only in these forests, are in dramatic decline. Some of the last refuges of two Southeast Asia rhino species are also found on the islands of Java and Sumatra.

Like many tropical areas, the forests are being cleared for commercial uses. Rubber, oil palm, and pulp production are three of the most detrimental forces facing biodiversity in Sundaland. In Sumatra, illegal and unsustainable logging and non-timber forest product extraction are widespread, fueled by high demand from China, North America, Europe, and Japan. Today, only about seven percent of the original extent of the forest remains in more or less intact condition.

See the rest of the Most Threatened Forest Hotspots on Living Green Magazine.