The New Homeless: Some of the World's Rarest Animals

Researchers find that critical forest habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Mouse lemur in Madagascar. (Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images)

May 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

In 2010, a group of conservation organizations called the Alliance for Zero Extinction identified 312,000 square miles of forest habitats that it said were critical for the protection of more than 920 endangered species around the world.

Today, more than 2 percent of those forests are gone. And the species that live in them might not be far behind.

That’s the sobering news released Wednesday by the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch project. An analysis of satellite data and on-the-ground examinations of 587 key forest habitats around the world has revealed that these critical habitats shrank by 3 million acres between 2001 and 2013.

That’s equivalent to the state of Connecticut.

“Continued forest loss within these sites could easily lead to the extinction of species,” said Benjamin Jones, a research analyst with World Resources Institute.

Individually, many of these AZE sites are quite small. Some, for example, are islands in the Pacific Ocean that contain species found nowhere else on Earth.

Others are effectively islands on dry land. Those forests are surrounded by development and agriculture, which trap the animals that live in the woodlands. “Because these areas are so small and the species are so dependent on such a small habitat, the loss of forest cover is critical,” Jones said.

One of the most notable incidents of deforestation Global Forest Watch identified was in Peru, which has 36 AZE sites. A section of Amazon forest known as Tarapoto lost more than 28 percent of its forest cover between 2001 and 2013, much of it to palm oil plantations. The forest—what remains of it—is home to two endangered species, the Cochran frog and the sky blue poison dart frog.

Another country facing massive forest-cover loss is Madagascar. One of its AZE sites, Menabe-Andranomena, is the only home to three endangered species: the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (the world’s smallest primate), the Malagasy giant jumping rat (which is freakishly huge), and the Madagascar jumping frog. The site, which has no legal protection, has shrunk by nearly 25,000 acres since the turn of the century.

Even sites closer to home have been hit hard. Canada has two of the largest AZE sites, which are both essential nesting areas for critically endangered whooping cranes. Forest fires in Wood Buffalo National Park have devastated hundreds of acres of important habitat.

Other countries notable for their levels of deforestation include Brazil, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mexico, which has one of the highest numbers of AZE sites.

Although all of this is bad news, Jones said there is a silver lining: These areas are being deforested at a slower rate than the world’s other forests.

Jones said he found this to be both surprising and welcome. “I always read negative stories about forest loss in really important areas,” he said. “This was at least a slightly positive story.”

Now that the analysis of AZE sites has been posted online as part of Global Forest Watch’s broader "Forest Change" interactive map, Jones said he hoped it would prove valuable for ongoing conservation efforts.

“It’s important that we give people a tool for more informed decision making when it comes to designing conservation efforts and intervention,” he said. Visitors will be able to use the map to see how things are changing at specific AZE sites, or in certain countries, or even how deforestation affects certain species. That can help conservationists to get the most return for their resources, he said.

That, in turn, might help to save some of these forests before the rest of them go up in smoke.