Essay On Dwindling Forest Cover

As concerns pertaining to environmental change grow by the day, a new study reveals that the world's forest cover is dwindling at an alarming rate and poses a major threat to the global ecosystem.

Per the study conducted by an international team of researchers and written by a North Carolina State University professor, the global forest habitat is steadily shrinking. Researchers note 70 percent of the existing forest cover is within half a mile of the edge of forest areas, making it more susceptible to harm due to agricultural and urban influences.

"It's no secret that the world's forests are shrinking, so this study asked about the effects of this habitat loss and fragmentation on the remaining forests," revealed Dr. Nick Haddad, the author of the study.

For the purpose of the study, the researchers traced the fragmentation of habitats across all the continents via experiments on seven sites on five continents, some of which have been studied for more than 30 years. The team observed varied ecosystems such as grasslands, savannahs and forests.

The researchers discovered that these fragmented habitats are responsible for reducing biodiversity by anywhere between 13 percent to 75 percent. The pivotal functions of an ecosystem are also impaired as the nutrient cycles are altered, with fewer nutrients being retained in a fragmented forest, the biomass reduced, and less carbon dioxide being captured, or sequestered, for long-term storage.

Alarmingly, the maximum impact is on the tiniest and isolated fragments of forest habitats. These negative effects get amplified as time lapses, which is worrying.

"The initial negative effects were unsurprising," Haddad said. "But I was blown away by the fact that these negative effects became even more negative with time. Some results showed a 50 percent or higher decline in plant and animals species over an average of just 20 years, for example. And the trajectory is still spiraling downward."

The team also created a map of the world's forest cover and discovered that there were a handful of habitats that remained free from any form of human development.

"The key results are shocking and sad. Ultimately, habitat fragmentation will also hurt people. This study is a wake-up call to how much we're affecting ecosystems - including areas we think we're conserving," concluded Haddad.

He suggests some of the negative effects of fragmentation can be mitigated by conserving and maintaining larger areas of habitat, making agricultural practices and urban design more efficient, and using landscape corridors, or connected fragments, to help achieve higher biodiversity and better ecosystem function.

The study has been published in Science Advances and was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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More than 200 of the mammal, bird and amphibian species that were newly identified as being at high risk by the study are not currently listed as threatened or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Duke University said in a news statement.

“Many of these species have alarmingly small ranges that make them extremely vulnerable,” said Binbin Li, a doctoral student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who led the study. “We may lose them before we are even able to get enough data to officially list them as threatened.”

Li and her team used newly available remote-sensing data to identify the unlisted species and their habitats, most of which are located in remote montane forests that snake across national borders in a region framed by eastern India, Singapore and China’s Yunnan Province, Duke University explained.

“Twenty-eight bird species, 147 amphibian species, and 42 mammal species were identified as being at high risk, despite currently not being listed as threatened or endangered by the IUCN. Scientists often refer to many of these species as being ‘Data Deficient,’ because knowledge about their numbers and geographic distribution has historically been spotty and incomplete.”

The scientists published their findings Aug. 3 in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal PLOS ONE.

More from the Duke statement:

By comparing the new information gleaned from remote sensing with maps of natural forests within national parks, preserves and other conservation areas in the region, the new study reveals that nearly 40 percent of the species likely have less than 10 percent of their habitats protected from future development or deforestation.

“And more than a quarter of the Data Deficient species have no coverage from protected areas at all,” Li said.

Many of the unprotected habitats cross national borders, she noted. This means increased international cooperation — including the creation of transboundary protected areas in biodiversity hot spots such as the Annamite Range of Vietnam and Laos — will be vital to the species’ survival.

Production of agricultural tree crops such as rubber and oil palm has expanded dramatically across mainland Southeast Asia in recent years.

“More than 56 percent of the world’s rubber and 39 percent of its palm oil are now produced in Southeast Asia, much of it on land that formerly was natural forest,” Li said. “Compared to the lush and diverse natural forest, few species can thrive in these green deserts.”

Increased use of remote-sensing technologies could help scientists and governments better identify which remaining natural forests should be made a conservation priority, said Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke, who co-authored the study. (Pimm is also an emeritus member of the National Geographic Committee for Exploration and a serving member of the Society’s Big Cat Initiative committee.]

“Without access to the new and frequently updated information remote sensing provides, between 20 percent and 40 percent of our current conservation priority areas could turn out to be a waste of effort because there are no forests, or natural forests, in them,” Pimm said.

“Remote-sensing technologies add a valuable new tool to our conservation toolbox,” he said. “They give us a much more accurate and up-to-date method for evaluating species’ threat levels — especially for unlisted endemic species such as these, which have largely been neglected in our conservation agenda.”

Other co-authors of the study were Alice Hughes of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens in China, Clinton Jenkins of the Institute for Ecological Research in Brazil, and Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela, a doctoral student at Duke’s Nicholas School.

Funding came from the China Scholarship Council.

CITATION: “Remotely Sensed Data Informs Red List Evaluations and Conservation Priorities in Southeast Asia,” Binbin V. Li, Alice C. Hughes, Clinton N. Jenkins, Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela, Stuart L. Pimm, , PLOS ONE, August 3, 2016;

David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. 

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