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From Cambodia to California: the world’s top 10 most threatened forests

The press release from Conservation International originally listed New Zealand as possessing the world’s 2nd most threatened forests when in fact it is New Caledonia’s forests.

Asia-Pacific forests are the most endangered, including 5 of the top 10 threatened forests.

Growing populations, expanding agriculture, commodities such as palm oil and paper, logging, urban sprawl, mining, and other human impacts have pushed many of the world’s great forests to the brink. Yet scientists, environmentalists, and even some policymakers increasingly warn that forests are worth more standing than felled. They argue that by safeguarding vulnerable biodiversity, sequestering carbon, controlling erosion, and providing fresh water, forests provide services to humanity, not to mention the unquantifiable importance of having wild places in an increasingly human-modified world. Still, the decline of the world’s forests continues: the FAO estimating that around 10 million hectares of tropical forest are lost every year. Of course, some of these forests are more imperiled than others, and a new analysis by Conservation International (CI) has cataloged the world’s 10 most threatened forests.

The list catalogs forests that have already lost 90% of their original extent, but are still hotspots for biodiversity, represented by at least 1,500 recorded endemic species of plants in each forest. According to CI, Asian-Pacific forests are the most imperiled in the world with five of the top 10 forests, including the first four. In contrast, Africa has three of the top 10 (when one includes the island of Madagascar), while South American and North America have one each.

One of the world’s biologically richest countries, the Philippines is home to species like the Philippine eagle, the second largest in the world. Only 7% of its habitat is left. Photo by Oliver Langrand.

While policymakers have focused on the important role forests play in sequestering carbon—depending on the year 10-15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from deforestation—Tracy Farrell, Senior Director Freshwater Conservation Program at CI says that the role of forests in providing fresh water will become increasingly important during this century.

“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.”

Harboring an estimated 80% of the world’s terrestrial species, the loss of forests also means an increasing likelihood of mass extinction, which some scientists say is already occurring. But biodiversity, like the forests they inhabit, provide essential services: pollination, food production, and new medicinal discoveries among others.

The Top 10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots (for maps of each forest, see the end of the article)

1. Indo-Burma

With only 5% of this once great Southeast Asian forest remaining, the Indo-Burma forest is one of the world’s most threatened, yet the rivers and floodplain wetlands of this forest provide freshwater, food, and economic opportunity for many of Southeast Asia’s massive population. The forests, and the waters they protect, are being impacted by draining for rice agriculture, hydro-electric dams for electricity, overfishing, and conversion of mangrove forests for shrimp aquaculture.

2. New Caledonia

Only 5% of New Caledonia’s forest landscape remains. Best known for its endemic plants, New Caledonian forests are home to species like the kagu, an endangered bird that is the only surviving member of its family. Nickel mining, deforestation and invasive species are the biggest threats.

3. Sundaland

Not long ago the forests of Malaysia and Indonesia were thriving and largely intact. Today, Indonesia has surpassed Brazil with highest forest loss in the world, and Malaysia is not far behind. Logging, pulp and paper, rubber, and, most recently, palm oil have decimated many of the forests, putting some of Asia’s most famous wildlife on the Critically Endangered Species list, including orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and Javan and Sumatran rhinos. Today, only 7% of the original forests survive in the Sundaland. The extensive deforestation and draining of peatlands has had global impacts: although not an industrial power Indonesia to the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases almost entirely due to forest destruction.

4. Philippines

Just north of Malaysia and Indonesia are the islands of the Philippines, whose forests are nearly as imperiled as the Sundaland’s although for different reasons. Many of the Philippine’s forests were logged in the past. Today the 7% of forests that remain are threatened by booming rural populations living in severe poverty, who are clearing forests for agriculture. Some 80 million Filipinos depend on the forests for their resources, threatening some of the world’s most biologically rich forests.

5. Atlantic Forest

South America is known for the world’s greatest tropical forest: the Amazon. Yet, the continent is home to another lesser-known, but even more imperiled, forest ecosystem, the
Atlantic Forest. Once covering much of South America’s Eastern coast, the forest has been whittled down to around 8% of its former range. Large-scale destruction of the Atlantic Forest began centuries ago for sugarcane plantations and then coffee plantations. Today, the dwindling forest, largely surviving in small fragments, is threatened by urban sprawl, agriculture, and cattle ranching. Many of its unique species survive on the edge of extinction in smaller and smaller forest fragments.

6. Mountains of Southwest China

Down to 8% of its original extent, the forests of Southwest China’s mountains is home to one of the world’s most beloved species, the giant panda. But these forests also support some of China’s most important and biodiverse rivers, including the Yangtze. While the region’s forests are threatened by overgrazing, firewood collection, and illegal hunting, the rivers are imperiled by overpopulation, overexploitation and China’s runaway development, such as the Three Gorges Dam. The Yangtze has already likely lost one of its key species, the baiji or Yangtze River dolphin, and many others are imperiled.

7.California Floristic Province

California’s Floristic Province is home to the world’s largest tree—not to mention the largest living organism—the sequoia. Down to 10% of its original habitat, the forest was historically logged, but is today largely threatened by commercial farming. In addition urban sprawl, pollution, and roads also impact the remaining coastal forest.

8. Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa

While Eastern Africa is largely known for its great plains, it is also home to some of the world’s most threatened forests, including the region’s coastal forests. While 10% of these forests survive, they are mostly fragmented. As in many parts of the world, agricultural expansion most imperils these forests. In the case of these coastal forests, both commercial and subsistence agriculture are putting pressure on the forests, exacerbated by population growth. Remaining species, such as a number of primates found no-where else, are imperiled by bushmeat hunting.

9. Madagascar & Indian Ocean Islands

Few places in the world are more unique than Madagascar, home to all of the world’s lemurs. Yet, desperate poverty, overpopulation, agriculture, bushmeat hunting, commercial timber, and mining are putting the island’s remaining 10% of forests left. In fact, even protected forests are not truly protected in Madagascar as a recent crisis has seen the island’s fabled parks ravaged for rosewood and its lemurs killed for bushmeat. Still, given the nation’s extreme poverty, survival of the forests is essential for fresh water, erosion protection, food production, and tourism, much of which is based around the island’s incredible biodiversity. Some conservationists have warned that if deforestation isn’t halted in Madagascar the nation will soon look like Haiti.

10. Eastern Afromontane

The forests of the Eastern Afromontane are the highest forests on the list. Covering mountains from Saudi Arabia to Zimbabwe, the remaining 11% of these forests contain remarkable biodiversity, including massive lakes with over 600 fish species found no-where else in the world. These forests are now threatened by agriculture, including plantations like bananas, beans, and tea. A growing bushmeat trade, which is booming across much of Sub-Saharan Africa, is putting additional pressure on the region’s species.

Also noted: New Zealand

Only a fraction of this truly unique forest landscape remains with its truly bizarre inhabitants, including ground-hunting bats, ancient frogs, and flightless birds. The remaining forests are threatened by deforestation and the draining of wetlands, while many of New Zealand’s unique species struggle against invasive species, including mammals and weedy plants. Some of the island’s unique species have already vanished for good.

CI erroneously listed New Zealand as #2 on the list. New Zealand is actually ranked #22.

Map courtesy of CI.

Map courtesy of CI.

Map courtesy of CI.

Map courtesy of CI.

Map courtesy of CI.

Map courtesy of CI.

Map courtesy of CI.

Map courtesy of CI.

Map courtesy of CI.

Map courtesy of CI.

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