An area the size of Scotland lost from the world’s most important sites for nature

By Ade Long, 5 Feb 2016

Conservationis scientists from the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), BirdLife International, and colleagues in Italy assessed satellite data to measure forest loss in 7,000 key sites for nature from 2000-2012.

Forest covered around 2.9 million km2 of land in these IBAs in 2000, but had decreased by around 73,000 km2 (an area the size of Scotland) by 2012 – a 2.5% loss across all IBAs.

Key countries with highest forest loss are Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar and Ghana, and major losses in South America and South-East Asia.

“It is the biodiverse tropics which are again suffering most”,  said Dr Graeme Buchanan, senior conservation scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and a co-author of the study.

In the new study, scientists used satellite imagery to measure forest loss remotely across the global network of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). They quantified forest loss between 2000 and 2012 across 7,279 of the world’s IBAs that support forest bird species.

These losses were not uniform, with most IBAs losing less than 1% of their forest cover over the period. However, a small number of sites suffered severe levels of deforestation including: Salta Forest, Argentina (a 72% loss), Rawa Lunang, Indonesia (69%) and Tesso Nilo, Indonesia (65%).

The authors discovered some significant patterns. The fastest rates of forest loss in IBAs were found in South America and South-East Asia, with losses accelerating notably between 2003 and 2007. Encouragingly, however, formal protection of IBAs (such as by designation as a national park or wildlife reserve) appears to be associated with lower rates of forest loss.

“It’s now possible to monitor changes in forest cover all of the planet’s IBAs. As these areas form the majority of currently known sites of global importance for the persistence of biodiversity, their future conservation is of paramount importance,” said Dr Graeme Buchanan, senior conservation scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and a co-author of the study.

“Indeed, the world’s governments have committed to protecting at least 17% of land by 2020 – with a particular focus on areas of special importance for biodiversity such as IBAs and other Key Biodiversity Areas. Citizens now have a way to monitor this progress to this target from a computer anywhere in the world, making the task of holding our governments to task on these pledges more immediate and manageable,”.

Another co-author, Dr Stuart Butchart, Head of Science at BirdLife International, added “We will be making these data – and annual updates in future – readily available to BirdLife Partners across the world so that they can focus their conservation efforts most effectively on the forest IBAs most vulnerable to rapid deforestation.”

The full paper is open access and will be available online on the website of the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation. The data on which this study was based are also all freely accessible: IBA boundary files are available on request from BirdLife at www.birdlife.org/datazone/info/ibadownload; tree cover data are available through the Google Earth Engine; the code used to extract forest change data is open source and is being made available through Github.