World's ten most threatened forests listed at launch of a special year
Posted: 2 February 2011
To mark the launch today of the the International Year of Forests, the US-based Conservation International has listed the ten most at-risk forested hotspots around the world - all predominantly tropical.
The aim is to focus attention on the need to increase the protection of forests, including their crucial importance for biodiversity conservation, climate stabilisation and economic development. The listed forests have all lost 90 per cent or more of their original habitat and each harbours at least 1500 endemic plant species - species found nowhere else in the world. If these forests are lost, says Conservation International, those endemic species are also lost forever.
It says 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 Caledonia, Sundaland, Philippines, Atlantic Forest, Mountains of Southwest China, California Floristic Province, Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa, Madagascar & Indian Ocean Islands and Eastern Afromontane. Here is a breakdown of these key hotspots, now more than ever in need of care and protection:
1 - Indo-Burma
The rivers and floodplain wetlands of this hotspot are tremendously important for the local people and for the conservation of birds, freshwater turtles and fish, including some of the largest freshwater fishes in the world. The Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River are habitats for the Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and the Jullien's golden carp (Probarbus jullieni). Aquatic ecosystems are under intense pressure in many areas of this hotspot. Freshwater floodplain swamps and wetlands are destroyed by draining for wet rice cultivation. Rivers have been dammed to generate electricity, resulting in flooding of sandbars and other habitats that would normally be exposed during the dry season, with severe impacts on nesting bird and turtle species. The conversion of mangroves to shrimp aquaculture ponds, overfishing and the use of destructive fishing technique are also significant problems to the coastal and freshwater ecosystems. Today, only five per cent of the original habitat remains.
2 - New Caledonia
New Caledonia is one of the smallest hotspots in the world (the size of New Jersey). This group of islands is located in the South Pacific at the southern extremity of the Melanesian region, 1,200 kilometers east of Australia. New Caledonia is the home of no less than five endemic plant families. It claims the world's only parasitic conifer and nearly two-thirds off the world's species of Araucaria trees, all of which are endemic. Nickel mining, forest destruction and invasive species threaten fauna like the kagu, an Endangered bird with a distinctive crest that is the only surviving member of its family. Only five percent of its original habitat remains.
3 - Sundaland
The Sundaland hotspot covers the western half of the Indo-Malayan archipelago, an arc of some 17,000 equatorial islands, and is dominated by two of the largest islands in the world: Borneo and Sumatra. Its spectacular flora and fauna are succumbing to the explosive growth of industrial forestry and to the international animal trade that claims tigers, monkeys and turtle species for food and medicine in other countries. Populations of the orangutan, found only in these forests, are in dramatic decline. Some of the last refuges of two Southeast Asia rhino species are also found on the islands of Java and Sumatra. Like many tropical areas, the forests are being cleared for commercial uses. Rubber, oil palm, and pulp production are three of the most detrimental forces facing biodiversity in Sundaland. In Sumatra, illegal and unsustainable logging and non-timber forest product extraction are widespread, fueled by high demand from China, North America, Europe, and Japan. Today, only about seven percent of the original extent of the forest remains in more or less intact condition.
4 - Philippines
More than 7,100 islands fall within the borders of the Philippines hotspot, identified as one of the world's biologically richest countries. Many endemic species are confined to forest fragments that cover only seven percent of the original extent of the hotspot. This includes over 6,000 plant species and many birds species such as the Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), the second-largest eagle in the world. Amphibian endemism is also unusually high and boasts unique species like the panther flying frog (Rhacophorus pardalis), which has special adaptations for gliding, including extra flaps of skin and webbing between fingers and toes to generate lift during glides. The Philippines is also one of the most endangered areas. Historically logged for timber products, today, the remaining forests are also being cleared for farming and to accommodate the needs of the nation's high population growth rate and severe rural poverty. The livelihoods of around 80 million people are highly dependent on natural resources.
5 - Atlantic Forest
The Atlantic Forest stretches along Brazil's Atlantic coast and extends to parts of Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. Also included in this hotspot is the offshore archipelago of Fernando de Noronha and several other islands off the Brazilian coast. This hotspot boasts 20,000 plant species, 40 per cent of which are endemic. Yet, less than 10 per cent of the original forest remains. More than two dozen Critically Endangered vertebrate species are clinging to survival in the region, including lion tamarins and six bird species that are restricted to the small patch of forest in northeastern Brazil. Beginning with sugarcane plantations and later, coffee plantations, this region has been losing habitat for hundreds of years. Now, with the increased expansion of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the Atlantic Forest is facing severe pressure from the issues tied to urbanization. Over 100 million people and industries that make up the vast majority of the country's economic output, including manufacturing, agriculture and cattle ranching, are dependent on the remnant forest cover for their supply of fresh water.
6 - Mountains of Southwest China
The Mountains of Southwest China support a wide array of habitats including the temperate flora in the world with the most endemic species. The endangered giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), which is almost entirely restricted to these shrinking forests, is the world's best-known flagship species for conservation.The red panda (Ailurus fulgens), a smaller relative of the giant panda, is also found in this hotspot. Also, the Mountains of Southwest China feed the most species-rich river systems in Asia, including several branches of the Yangtze River. Illegal hunting, overgrazing and firewood collection are some of the primary threats to biodiversity in this region. The construction of the largest dam in history, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, has already and will continue to heavily threaten the biodiversity of this region. Dam building is being planned on all main rivers, which should affect ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions of people. In all, only about eight per cent of the original extent of the hotspot remains in pristine condition.
7 - California Floristic Province
The California Floristic Province is a zone of Mediterranean-type climate and has the high levels of plant endemism characteristic of these regions. It is home to the giant sequoia, the planet's largest living organism, and its taller but less massive relative, the coastal redwood. It is also home to some of the last individuals of the California condor, the largest North American bird. In fact, it is the largest avian breeding ground in the United States. Several large mammal species once found in the here have gone extinct, including the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos), which appears on the flag of California and has been the state symbol for more than 150 years. Wilderness destruction caused by commercial farming is a major threat for the region, which generates half of all the agricultural products used by U.S. consumers. The hotspot is also heavily threatened by the expansion of urban areas, pollution, and road construction, all of which have rendered California one of the four most ecologically degraded states in the country. Today, about 10 percent of the original vegetation remains in more or less pristine condition.
8 - 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 per cent of the original forest left.
9 - 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.
10 - 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 metres, above which there is often a Hagenia forest zone up to 3,600 metres. The Albertine Rift harbours 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 per cent of its original habitat is left.
Forests overall cover only 30 per cent of our planet's area and yet they are home to 80 per cent 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 is increasingly clear. Emissions resulting from deforestation represent approximately 15 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Forests 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 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."
Forests have been increasingly important in the provision of fresh water on a global scale, CI points out. 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 of CI's Freshwater Conservation Program, 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."
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