15 Apr 2016

Forest loss this century is driving many species towards extinction, warns new study

Long-tailed Parakeet has lost 17% of the forest in its distribution during 2000-2012 (image © Lip Kee)
By Adrian Long

Deforestation since the turn of the century has driven at least 500 species of mammals, birds and amphibians closer to extinction, according to a newly published scientific study.

Scientists from BirdLife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (BirdLife in the UK), and universities in Wrocław, Rome, Grenoble and Queensland used Google’s ‘Earth Engine’ cloud-computing power to analyse high-resolution open-access satellite maps.

“We measured the extent and change in tree cover between 2000 and 2012 within the distributions of over 11,000 forest-dependent birds, mammals and amphibians” said lead author Łukasz Tracewski of the University of Wrocław, Poland. “We then applied these data to assess the potential implications for the extinction risk of these species, in terms of their status on the IUCN Red List, which is the most widely used objective framework for assessing species’ extinction risk”.

The study found that in the vast majority of cases the species with an increased extinction risk are those which now have highly restricted areas of occupancy, resulting from little forest cover remaining within their ranges.

Co-author Dr Stuart Butchart, Head of Science at BirdLife International and IUCN Red List Steering Committee member, noted:

“The results were pretty shocking, with the overall proportion of species of conservation concern potentially increasing by 15% for birds, 25% for mammals and 33% for amphibians. The total numbers of species affected include 198-490 amphibians, 251-253 birds and 51-135 mammals, with the higher estimates including Data Deficient species for which we are less certain about their distributions.”

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Examples for potential uplisting include:

  • Long-tailed Parakeet Psittacula longicauda, which lost 17% of the forest in its distribution (mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia) during 2000-2012, qualifying it for uplisting from Near Threatened to Vulnerable.
  • Cayenne Stubfoot Toad Atelopus flavescens, which has just 400 km2 of suitable forest habitat left within its current known range in French Guiana, qualifiying it for uplisting from Vulnerable to Endangered.
  • Hagen’s Flying Squirrel Petinomys hageni, which loss of 73% of the forest within its range in Sumatra, Indonesia during 2000-2012, qualifying it for Endangered status. 

Cayenne Stubfoot Toad has just 400 km2 of suitable forest habitat left within its known range in French Guiana (image ©  G. Francesco Ficetola)

Hotspots with the greatest numbers of affected species include Central America, the Northern Andes, Madagascar, the Eastern Arc forests in Africa and the islands of South-East Asia.

"This is exactly the kind of planetary-scale environmental research we hoped to support when we built Google Earth Engine," said Dave Thau, manager of developer relations for Earth Engine at Google.

"We've done our best to put vast amounts of data, and tools for analyzing it, into the hands of researchers who can use it.  BirdLife International and its collaborators have put those tools to great use, turning data into knowledge, and helping the world better understand the environmental challenges we are facing."

“Our study illustrates the potential value when Google’s cloud-computing technology is combined with vast datasets of high-resolution satellite imagery, and power of such technology to inform conservation” said co-author Dr Graeme Buchanan of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The results show that the extinction risk for many species of tropical forests is even greater than was previously thought. “This highlights the urgency of tackling the drivers of deforestation and effectively conserving important areas of remaining forest, in particular the Key Biodiversity Areas upon which many of these threatened species depend” added Butchart.

The paper, entitled Toward quantification of the impact of 21st century deforestation on the extinction risk of terrestrial vertebrates published online in the scientific journal Conservation Biology: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12715/abstract