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Study finds climate, biodiversity at risk from tropical forest fragmentation

Tropical forests are home to more than half of the world’s species and play an important role in offsetting global warming, but they are under threat due to global demand for land, energy, food and other resources.

The scale of that threat can now be better understood through the findings of scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ).

In a recent study published in Nature, the researchers use a theory that applies to snowflakes as well as to the tropics to quantify how tropical forests in Africa, Central and South America and Southeast Asia are increasingly fragmenting into isolated patches that degrades ecosystems and food chains. The analysis concludes that such fragmentation is near a tipping point, beyond which forest fragmentation will only increase.

The findings come at time when many nations and international organizations are trying to slow down forest loss, which leads to conflict over shrinking natural resources, migration, and declining numbers of plant and wildlife species.

In one example cited in the UFZ paper, many species such as the jaguar depend on large sections of contiguous forest for survival. Tropical forests are also rich with trees, birds, mammals and other wildlife, and home to about 80 percent of the world’s species while covering 6 percent of the earth’s land surface.

They are also largely unstudied, with new species frequently discovered. Rainforests such as the Amazon also play a vital role in storing carbon and reducing emissions that are part of global warming,

To better protect these forest landscapes, there are several international initiatives underway. The United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests aims to expand the world’s forests by 120 million hectares – an area roughly equivalent to the size of South Africa.

The Bonn Challenge, a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes into restoration across the globe by 2020 restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030.

Meanwhile, forest landscape restoration and other efforts such as the Collaborative Partnership on Forests are actively working to stem the decline.

Similarly, says Taubert, ensuring reducing the growing number small and isolated fragments of tropical forests will require specific interventions such as reforestation and reducing deforestation.