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Spotlight on forests
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Tropical deforestation is one of the gravest ecological tragedies of our age. Driven by global demand for timber, paper and land for crops and biofuels, over ten million hectares of tropical forest are being lost each year. The BirdLife Partnership is at the centre of global efforts to conserve and restore forests so that the profusion of life they contain and the vital services they provide are not lost to the world forever. An exciting new initiative is BirdLife’s Forests of Hope programme which aims to prevent deforestation or promote restoration of natural forest at up to 20 sites covering at least five million hectares of tropical forest by 2015.

Nearly two-thirds of bird species are found in forests, chiefly in the tropics, and many can live nowhere else (Birds occur in all major habitat types, with forest being particularly important). Yet more than ten million hectares of tropical forest are destroyed each year. The destruction and degradation of forests poses a major threat to the world’s birds. The majority (76%) of threatened species are found in forests, with most dependent on intact habitat for their survival (Threatened birds occur in all habitats, but the majority are found in forest).

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests to raise awareness on sustainable management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests.

The vast majority of deforestation is for conversion to agriculture or rangeland, although often this is preceded by commercial clear-cutting or selective logging for timber (The forests of Asia, in particular, have suffered from unsustainable forestry practices). Following forest clearance, remnant habitat patches are often too small and isolated to adequately safeguard complete biological communities (The rapid loss of Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest and the status of protected areas); however, even tiny habitat fragments can be critically important for some forest-dependent species (Important Bird Areas including habitat fragments and the surrounding matrix: an example from Kenya). Large parts of tropical Asia and South America are being cleared for the pulp and paper industry or converted to oil palm and rubber plantations (Lowland forests will have been destroyed across large parts of Indonesia by 2010, In Papua New Guinea, deforestation for oil palm plantations is causing declines in endemic birds), resulting in the loss of most forest birds (Many forest birds cannot survive in oil palm and rubber plantations).

Selective logging is widespread throughout the tropics. This practice almost always impoverishes bird communities (Forest bird communities are depleted even under selective logging regimes). It also facilitates further disturbance, including encroachment and increased hunting pressure, which can have greater and more lasting impacts than the logging itself. For example, forest ecosystems compromised by selective logging are more susceptible to devastating fires (In Indonesia, human-initiated fires are responsible for massive losses of rainforest). These are likely to become more frequent and intense as a consequence of global warming. Also as a result of climate change, many of the world’s montane tropical rainforests are expected to shrink, with potentially devastation consequences for the biodiversity they support (The number of montane endemic birds that go extinct in Australia depends on the degree of warming).

Deforestation accounts for about 15–20% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions every year. Tropical forests play a crucial role in sequestering and storing carbon, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, clearing forested land for so called 'carbon neutral' biofuel crops is a seriously flawed premise that will accelerate, rather than arrest, climate change (Biofuel plantations on forested lands: double jeopardy for biodiversity and climate). Currently, there is no effective mechanism for realising the true value of intact forest, and consequently national governments focus on short-term financial gain (In current global markets, oil palm plantations are valued more highly than ancient forest), regardless of the fact that conversion of forests makes no economic sense once unmarketed ecological services are taken into account (The perverse economics of habitat conversion).

The BirdLife Partnership has been working in tropical forest conservation for decades. Around the world Partners are involved in numerous projects to conserve and restore degraded forest ecosystems and promote sustainable forest use (Restoring forest ecosystems will help buffer communities against climate change, Healthy forests are benefiting local livelihoods in Pakistan). For example, at the Arabuko–Sokoke Forest Reserve in Kenya, Nature Kenya (BirdLife in Kenya) has helped establish a diverse range of sustainable, forest-based industries including honey production, butterfly farming and ecotourism (Improved livelihoods at Arabuko–Sokoke Forest in Kenya). At Mount Oku in Cameroon, a similar project, run by the Cameroon Biodiversity Conservation Society (BirdLife in Cameroon), has resulted in significant forest regeneration, whilst also improving agricultural practices and generating additional sources of income for local people (Community conservation action is showing success on Mount Oku, Cameroon). Working with Community Forest Users Groups, Bird Conservation Nepal (BirdLife in Nepal) has developed a number of sustainable, income-generating activities based on forest conservation (Working with Community Forest Users Groups in Nepal). In Madagascar, Asity Madagascar (BirdLife in Madagascar) is finding innovative ways to protect forests through collaboration with local people, the government and the private sector (Using direct payments as an incentive for IBA conservation in Madagascar).

BirdLife’s Forests of Hope programme brings together and builds on these many successes. Its aim is the prevention of deforestation and the restoration of natural forest at up to 20 sites covering at least five million hectares of tropical forest by 2015. One of the most exciting initiatives is underway at Harapan in Sumatra. Here, Burung Indonesia (BirdLife in Indonesia), the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) and the BirdLife International Secretariat have collaborated with the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry to allow private organisations to manage logging concessions in the interests of nature conservation. Without this initiative, the area would almost certainly have been destroyed like so much of the region’s rainforest before it (Political will saves important tropical forests in Sierra Leone and Indonesia).

To access these and other case studies on forests, please click on the following links.

BirdLife Forest of Hope programme
International Year of Forests 2011 

Compiled 2011

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2011) Spotlight on forests. Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world's birds website. Available from: