Conservation news

Visualizing the impacts of human disturbance on tropical forest biodiversity

  • Efforts to protect biodiversity often focus on keeping forests and the habitat they represent from being cut down. But research published in the journal Nature last year suggests that forest degradation resulting from human activities is perhaps just as urgent a threat to biodiversity as deforestation.
  • According to the study, man-made disturbances in Pará’s tropical forests have resulted in levels of biodiversity loss equivalent to clearing 92,000 to 139,000 square kilometers (around 35,500 to 53,700 square miles) of pristine forest.
  • If that kind of raw data is hard to wrap your brain around, that’s where Silent Forest comes in. Thiago Medaglia described it as “a journalistic data visualization project” in an email to Mongabay.

Efforts to protect wildlife often focus on keeping forests and the habitat they represent from being cut down. But research published in the journal Nature last year suggested that forest degradation resulting from human activities is perhaps just as urgent a threat to biodiversity as deforestation.

In order to bring more attention to the findings of that Nature paper — and to elevate general awareness of the fact that addressing forest degradation is as important to wildlife conservation efforts as halting deforestation — a group of researchers and journalists got together and launched Silent Forest (Floresta Silenciosa in Portuguese), a web-based data visualization platform, last month.

The Nature study looked at the impacts of human activities, including selective logging, road-building, hunting, and forest fires (which are becoming more frequent and more severe thanks to human-induced climate change), on plants, birds, and dung beetles in the state of Pará, which contains roughly 25 percent of the Brazilian Amazon. These man-made disturbances in Pará’s tropical forests have resulted in levels of biodiversity loss equivalent to clearing 92,000 to 139,000 square kilometers (around 35,500 to 53,700 square miles) of pristine forest, the researchers behind the study found.

If that kind of raw data is hard to wrap your brain around, that’s where Silent Forest comes in. Thiago Medaglia described it as “a journalistic data visualization project” in an email to Mongabay. He serves as editorial coordinator of the platform, and is also founder of Ambiental Media, which partnered with the Sustainable Amazon Network and InfoAmazonia to create the Silent Forest site.

“A multidisciplinary team was formed with the purpose to translate the scientific data in a faithful way, but communicated through digital tools that favor interaction with a wider audience,” Medaglia explained.

An Amazonian timber yard. Photo by Jos Barlow.

A map of Pará on the Silent Forest platform, for instance, lets users toggle between different views of the state showing the chief wood-gathering hubs in the forests, major roads, and areas that have been impacted by forest fires, logging, and other types of degradation.

Toby Gardner, a scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and the Sustainable Amazon Network (RAS) who was also a co-author of the Nature study, told Mongabay that the name “Silent Forest” was chosen to emphasize the fact that degraded forests sound much different from intact forests. “They are quieter,” he said, “because they are biologically impoverished. This is a very powerful message to convey — degraded forests are not the same.”

Gardner and the other co-authors of the Nature study developed what they call the Conservation Value Deficit index, which is intended to capture the combined effects of various disturbance types, from hunting and logging to fires and fragmentation. The impacts of each of these disturbances are highly interdependent, Gardner said.

“As such, the impact of different disturbances cannot be studied in isolation,” he added. “The index offers us the first chance to look at the combined effect, and therefore compare the combined, total effect to the effect of deforestation.”

Smoke billows from Amazonian wildfires in Pará state. Photo by Adam Ronan.

Another map on Silent Forest shows the state of Pará divided into five different regions that are separated by rivers and harbor their own unique fauna and flora — what are known as “areas of endemism.” According to the map, the biodiversity losses caused by forest disturbance, as measured using the Conservation Value Deficit index, are greater than those caused by deforestation in three of the five areas. (Gardner is quick to point out that such comparisons can only be made at large scales: “Obviously impact of deforestation at local scale is much greater,” he said.)

Silent Forest has also added a special interactive feature detailing how birds have been impacted by forest degradation in Pará. The authors of the Nature study note that Pará is home to more than 10 percent of the world’s bird species, many of which are endemic — and that some of these birds are suffering the most from human activities, as they cannot survive in forests with high levels of disturbance.

Alexander Lees, an ornithologist at Manchester Metropolitan University (UK) who co-authored the Nature paper, came up with a categorization system for the birds, labeling them as “degradation tolerant,” “susceptible to degradation,” or “favored by degradation.” Silent Forest includes an interactive chart that conveys these findings and also includes illustrations of the bird species of Pará, data on each species’ occurrence, and even audio of the birds’ songs.

There are no other short-term updates planned for the platform at this time, but Gardner says not to rule the possibility out: “We definitely want to keep this platform alive and use it as a powerful means of communicating and educating about the importance of forest degradation into the future.”

The Slaty-capped Shrike-vireo (Vireolanius leucotis) is, like many bird species, negatively affected by forest disturbance. Photo by Alexander Lees.

CITATION

Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.