(Photo: Reuters)

The World’s Forests Are Being Degraded at an Alarming Rate, and That’s Hurting Elephants, Tigers, and Bears

A first-of-its-kind study finds 250 million acres of forest have been fractured by human development since 2000.
Sep 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Deforestation—the worldwide destruction of forests—is the calamitous problem that everybody worries about. But a new analysis makes the case that forest degradation is also happening at “alarming speed” and may be just as bad, particularly for wildlife.

Just since 2000, almost 250 million acres of the world’s last remaining undisturbed forests have become degraded, mostly by logging and new roads, according to the analysis, the first attempt to measure forest degradation on a global scale. That’s more than triple the land area of Germany and represents 8 percent of the world’s remaining Intact Forest Landscapes, or IFLs.

Ilona Zhuravleva, a Greenpeace GIS scientist who worked on the analysis, said forest degradation poses a major threat to some of the most charismatic animals on Earth, particularly large, wide-ranging species that depend on genuine wilderness for their survival. Among the victims are forest elephants in the Congo, jaguars in the Amazon, woodland caribou in Canada, wolves and bears in Russia, and tigers in Asia. Indigenous forest people also typically become displaced or worse when industrial forestry brings the outside world into formerly inaccessible regions.

In the worst case cited in the study, the South American nation of Paraguay has lost 78 percent of its remaining undisturbed forests in this century, largely because it failed to regulate cutting of its Chaco forests to make room for soybean farming and cattle ranching. That has allowed “U.S.-based agribusiness giants Cargill, Bunge, and Archer Daniels Midland to aggressively expand in Paraguay with a minimum of international scrutiny or outcry,” Rolling Stone recently reported.

Among the other examples of degradation cited by the researchers, Russia has recently permitted industrial forestry in the Dvinsky Forest, 540 miles north of Moscow, degrading about a quarter of one of Europe’s largest remaining IFLs. The Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo) has likewise degraded 17 percent of its intact forests in this century. In both Russia and the Congo, according to the analysis, the degradation was the work of companies that had at one time been certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council.

The announcement of the new analysis, by a consortium of university and environmental groups, comes just ahead of the FSC’s triennial General Assembly, beginning Sunday in Seville, Spain. The FSC certifies sustainable forestry practices on 180 million acres of forest, about 15 percent of all forests worldwide. But according to Christoph Thies of Greenpeace International, much of the degradation is taking place on intact forests certified by FSC.

“We need to alert them that they have an implementation problem here, and if they want to be credible,” he said, they need to take the issue of forest degradation seriously. Thies, who belongs to the FSC’s environmental chamber, said that should mean an end to cutting new roads into the world’s last remnants of forest wilderness.

Forest degradation can be extraordinarily difficult to detect, said Peter Potapov of the University of Maryland. Hence most previous studies have not even attempted to look at the issue at the national level, focusing instead on regional or even local areas.

For this study, the researchers relied on imagery provided by the U.S. Geological Survey Landsat program in partnership with NASA. They took baseline satellite imagery of large IFLs from 2000, then scrutinized 2013 satellite images for signs of new roads, logging, mining, oil and gas exploration, agriculture, and fires near human infrastructure.

The combination of satellite imagery with “ever more powerful cloud computing” could make it easier to track and even prevent forest degradation in real time. (The maps used in the analysis are available at the Global Forest Watch website for analysis by others.) “We believe,” said Potapov, “that the global IFL map will help to spur practical conservation planning and action,” leading responsible logging companies to leave large undeveloped forest landscapes intact.

If that doesn’t happen, said Nigel Sizer of the World Resources Institute, the new analysis makes clear “that business as usual will lead to destruction of most remaining intact forests in this century.”

And some of the most beloved animals on Earth will vanish in the process.