Conservation International Highlights Forest Ecosystems on the Edge of Collapse

To mark the International Year of Forests, Conservation International, highlighted the ten most at-risk forested hotspots around the world. These forests have all lost 90% 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 Zealand, Sundaland, Philippines, Atlantic Forest, Mountains of Southwest China, California Floristic Province, Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa, Madagascar & Indian Ocean Islands and Eastern Afromontane Forests.

The International Year of Forests should 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.

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% 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 products.”

The most at-risk forested hotspots in Africa are:

Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa

Though tiny and fragmented, the forest remnants that make up the Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa contain remarkable levels of biodiversity. The primates are important flagship species for this hotspot, which boasts three endemic monkey species: the Tana River red colobus, the Tana River mangabey and the Zanzibar red colobus, which has an estimated population of about 1,000-1,500 individuals, mainly in Zanzibar’s Jozani Forest, but also in a number of village forests. The Zanzibar red colobus is a significant tourist attraction that, historically, was not hunted by the Muslim inhabitants of the Island; however, there have been recent reports that suggest it is being hunted by immigrants from the mainland. Agricultural expansion continues to be the biggest threat facing the Coastal Forests of East Africa. Due to poor soil quality and an increasing population trend, subsistence agriculture as well as commercial farming continue to consume more and more of the region’s natural habitat, with only 10 percent of the original forest left.

Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands

This hotspot is a living example of species evolution in isolation. Despite close proximity to Africa, the islands do not share any of the typical animal groups of nearby Africa. Instead, they have evolved an exquisitely unique assemblage of species, with high levels of endemism. Madagascar’s more than 50 lemur species are the island’s charismatic worldwide ambassadors for conservation, although several species have been driven to extinction. In an area that is already one of the most economically disadvantaged in the world, the high population growth rate is putting tremendous pressure on the natural environment. Non-sustainable agriculture, hunting and timber extraction, industrial and small-scale mining are growing threats. It is estimated that only 10 percent of the original habitat of these islands is left. In Madagascar, protecting the remaining forest cover is of great importance given that, even though the nation is rich in fresh water resources, over half of the population does not have adequate access to water supply.

Eastern Afromontane

The mountains of the Eastern Afromontane hotspot are scattered along the eastern edge of Africa, from Saudi Arabia in the north to Zimbabwe in the south. Though geographically disparate, the mountains comprising this hotspot have remarkably similar flora. The most widespread tree genus is Podocarpus, although Juniperus is found in drier forests of northeastern and eastern Africa. A zone of bamboo is often found between 2,000 and 3,000 meters, above which there is often a Hagenia forest zone up to 3,600 meters. The Albertine Rift harbors more endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians than any other region in Africa. The geological turmoil that created the mountains of this hotspot has also yielded some of the world’s most extraordinary lakes. Due to these large lakes, a vast amount of freshwater fish diversity can be found in the Eastern Afromontane region, which is home to 617 endemic fish species. As in many tropical areas, the main threat to these forests is the expansion of agriculture, especially large crop plantations like bananas, beans and tea. Another relatively new threat, which coincides with the increasing population, is the growing bushmeat market. Today, only 11 percent of its original habitat is left.

(Photo and map credits: all images are the property of Conservation International (CI) and CI’s partners)