On a global scale, we’re having more and more conversations about the importance of forests to life on Earth. There are disheartening headlines telling us just how fast we are losing forests around the world, but there are also uplifting stories, such as when 350 million trees were planted in Ethiopia in just one day last month.
We know that forests are vital to humans. They provide us with clean air, clean water and food, and are our best carbon-capture technology, helping absorb the greenhouse gases that are driving global climate change. But in our fight to protect them, we need to talk about forest quality as much as quantity.
A groundbreaking new report from WWF, “Below the Canopy,” examines the importance of biodiversity below the forest canopy, a crucial but often overlooked component of healthy, functioning forest ecosystems. Wildlife and forests are intrinsically linked; while forests provide habitat and food for animals, those animals engage in pollination, seed dispersal, herbivory, and other crucial roles that help keep forests growing and storing more carbon.
Although wildlife is crucial to the health of forests, the report found that monitored populations of forest-dwelling species across the globe have declined by more than half (53%), on average, in just over 40 years, mainly because of human intervention. Some of these declines can be linked to deforestation, but these species face multiple threats outside of habitat loss and degradation, including hunting and capture, invasive species, climate change, and disease.
The Greater Mekong region, comprising Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, is a microcosm of this phenomenon.
The region was the world’s most densely forested area in the 1970s, but has now lost a third of its tree cover – and is on course to lose another third between 2010 and 2030 – mainly because of agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, mining operations, forest fires, and civil conflict.
Simultaneously, the region’s forest-dwelling wildlife are under unrelenting pressure from human intervention. The Greater Mekong region is a global hotspot for illegal wildlife trade, threatening the very existence of endangered species including tigers, which are targeted for their teeth, bones, and other parts to be used as medicine and jewelry. Other forest-dwelling species are victims of the region’s snaring crisis: rampant usage of cheaply constructed wire snares placed in forests by those hunting for bushmeat, capturing any species that stumbles into them.
So, while it is extremely important that we halt deforestation and degradation and ensure that larger areas of natural forest are protected, we must keep in mind that in order to have healthy, thriving forests we also need to protect the wildlife that keeps these ecosystems alive.
There are reasons to hope for the future of wildlife in the region. The government of Myanmar announced last week the presence of a breeding population of tigers in the country. The large-antlered muntjac, one of the rarest and most threatened mammal species in Southeast Asia, was rediscovered in Quang Nam province in Vietnam last year after populations were nearly wiped out by snaring. On top of that, new species are still being discovered in the region every year, with more than 2,600 new mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile and plant species described between 1997 and 2017.
Addressing threats to wildlife populations must be a key part of our strategy for protecting forests. Often, the same people who enter natural forests to cut timber illegally are also setting snares and poaching wildlife while they are there. This means protecting forests and wildlife can go hand in hand.
To accomplish this, we should:
- Ensure that protected areas are actually protected. Without proper enforcement, protection on paper doesn’t mean much for the forests in the region that are still being cleared of trees and wildlife. Additionally, protected areas need to be connected to each other through forest corridors so that wildlife like elephants and tigers can migrate between them.
- Know where our forest products are coming from. Until there is greater demand for traceability and sustainability in forest supply chains, there will be no incentive for producers and sellers to prioritize sustainable productive forests that don’t result in encroachment into natural forests.
- Eliminate demand for illegal wildlife products. So much of the poaching occurring around the world can be attributed to demand for illegal wildlife products, mainly in Asia. Without that demand, we can significantly reduce pressure on wildlife populations and, in turn, forests.
- Empower local communities. Local communities that rely on forests for resources and livelihoods are often the best land stewards. When they are able to use forests sustainably, as they have for generations, without outside threats from illegal loggers and poachers, forests can benefit humans and wildlife.
According to last week’s IPCC report, land use and agriculture contribute roughly 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the same as all electricity generation. The largest single source of those emissions is tropical deforestation.
Forests are among our greatest tools in the fight against climate change. Forests are alive, and protecting them means more than just increasing forested area, it also means ensuring every living part is healthy and thriving.