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It’s Not Just Deforestation, it’s Degradation. And Wildlife Loses

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 5, 2014

Black bear meets dragonfly (Photo: Reuters)

Black bear meets dragonfly (Photo: Reuters)

Deforestation—the worldwide destruction of forests—is the calamitous problem that everybody worries about.  But a new analysis makes the case that forest degradation is also happening at “alarming speed” and may be just as bad, particularly for wildlife.

Just since the year 2000, almost 250 million acres of the world’s last remaining undisturbed forests have become degraded, mostly by logging and new roads, according to the analysis, the first attempt to measure forest degradation on a global scale.   That’s more than triple the land area of Germany, and represents eight percent of the world’s remaining “Intact Forest Landscapes,” or IFLs.

Ilona Zhuravleva, a Greenpeace GIS scientist who worked on the analysis, said forest degradation poses a major threat to some of the most charismatic animals on Earth, particularly large, wide-ranging species that depend on genuine wilderness for their survival. Among the victims are forest elephants in the Congo, jaguars in the Amazon, woodland caribou in Canada, wolves and bears in Russia, and tigers in Asia.  Indigenous forest people also typically become displaced, or worse, when industrial forestry brings the outside world into formerly inaccessible regions.

In the worst case cited in the study, the South American nation of Paraguay has already lost 78 percent of its remaining undisturbed forests in this century, largely because it failed to regulate cutting of its Chaco forests to make room for soybean farming and cattle ranching. That has allowed “U.S.-based agribusiness giants Cargill, Bunge, and Archer Daniels Midland to aggressively expand in Paraguay with a minimum of international scrutiny or outcry,” Rolling Stone recently reported.

Among the other examples of degradation cited by the researchers, Russia has recently permitted industrial forestry in the Dvinsky Forest, 540 miles north of Moscow, degrading about a quarter of one of Europe’s largest remaining intact forest landscapes.  The Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo) has likewise degraded 17 percent of its intact forests in this century.  In both Russia and the Congo, according to the analysis, the degradation was the work of companies that had at one time been certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

The announcement of the new analysis, by a consortium of university and environmental groups, comes just ahead of the FSC’s triennial General Assembly, beginning Sunday in Seville, Spain.  The FSC certifies sustainable forestry practices on 180 million acres of forest, about 15 percent of all forests worldwide.  But according to Christoph Thies of Greenpeace International, much of the degradation is taking place on intact forests certified by FSC.

“We need to alert them that they have an implementation problem here, and if they want to be credible,” he said, they need to take the issue of forest degradation seriously.  Thies, who belongs to the FSC’s environmental chamber, said that should mean an end to cutting new roads into the world’s last remnants of forest wilderness.

Forest degradation can be extraordinarily difficult to detect, said Peter Potapov, of the University of Maryland.  Hence most previous studies have not even attempted to look at the issue at the national level, focusing instead on regional or even local areas.

For this study, the researchers relied on imagery provided by the U.S. Geological Survey Landsat program in partnership with NASA. They took baseline satellite imagery of large Intact Forest Landscapes from the year 2000, and then scrutinized 2013 satellite images of these IFLs for signs of new roads, logging, mining, oil and gas exploration, agriculture, and fires near human infrastructure.

The combination of satellite imagery with “ever more powerful cloud computing” could make it easier to track and even prevent forest degradation in real time.  (The maps used in the analysis are available at the Global Forest Watch website for analysis by others.)  “We believe, said Potapov, “that the global IFL map will help to spur practical conservation planning and action,” leading responsible logging companies to leave large undeveloped forest landscapes intact.

If that doesn’t happen, said Nigel Sizer of the World Resources Institute, what the new analysis makes clear is “that business as usual will lead to destruction of most remaining intact forests in this century.”

And some of the most beloved animals on Earth will vanish in the process.

9 Responses to “It’s Not Just Deforestation, it’s Degradation. And Wildlife Loses”

  1. For further reading on how forest degradation affects wildlife, Peter Potapov suggests these articles:

    Rudis, V. A., and J. B. Tansey. 1995. Regional assessment of remote forests and black bear habitat
    from resource surveys. Journal of Wildlife Management 59(1):170–180.

    Wilcox, B. A., and D. D. Murphy. 1985. Conservation strategy: the effects of fragmentation
    on extinction. American Naturalist 125:879–887.

    Rodriguez, A., and M. Delibes. 2003. Population fragmentation and extinction in the Iberian lynx.
    Biological Conservation 109(3):321–331

    Gucinski, H., M. J. Furiss, R. R. Ziemer, and M.H. Brookes. 2001. Forest roads: a synthesis of
    scientific information. USDA, Portland, Oregon. [online] URL: http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/gtr509.
    pdf.

    Ferraz, G., G. J. Russell, P. C. Stouffer, R. O. Bierregaard, S. L. Pimm, and T. E. Lovejoy. 2003.
    Rates of species loss from Amazonian forest fragments. Proceedings of the National Academy of
    Sciences 100:14069–14073.

    Turner, I. M. 1996. Species loss in fragments of tropical rain forest: a review of the evidence. The
    Journal of Applied Ecology 33(2):200–209.

  2. Reblogged this on GarryRogers Nature Conservation and commented:
    Diversity and stability of forests depends on much more than just the presence of trees. Regional forest inventories have relied heavily on satellite imagery that does not reveal the condition and trend of understory species. We have spent our resources on NASA programs instead of on-foot surveys. Thus, the condition of the principal contributors to biodiversity is unknown. The issues covered by this article are essential for forest ecosystem health. Perhaps further research will focus more on baseline ground surveys.

  3. Thank you for writing about this important subject.

  4. Thanks, Gary. I’m just taking another look at the photo and thinking there is some major photoshopping going on here. First of all, the bear’s muzzle isn’t aligned normally with its ears. That makes me wonder if somebody photoshopped another bear’s face onto this bear’s body. But it also makes me wonder if the photographer really found the dragonfly right there where he wanted it, or if this was something conveniently added afterward.

  5. […] Not just deforestation: forest degradation matters for wildlife, too. (Strange Behaviors) […]

  6. […] Not just deforestation: forest degradation matters for wildlife, too. (Strange Behaviors) […]

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