Forests cover 31 percent of earth’s land surface and house a majority of the plants and animals found on earth. It is estimated that these diverse ecosystems house 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity . Rainforests have especially high species density, covering 2 percent of earth’s surface, but housing nearly 50 percent of all plant and animal species .
These plants and animals are integral to forest ecosystems and provide countless ecosystem services to humans. If forests ceased to exist humans would be unable to survive.
As important as forests are both environmentally and economically, many of our global forests are severely affected by deforestation. Deforestation is one of the leading causes of climate change and species extinction.
Deforestation defined as “the cutting down of trees in a large area, or the destruction of trees by people,” is a huge problem and it is estimated that between 3 and 7 billion trees are cut down each year.
Why is deforestation happening?
Forests are often cut or burned to make way for farming or cattle grazing. Commercial logging also contributes to deforestation, and forests are cut down for development .
Deforestation in developing nations is primarily due to a competitive global economy, where poorer countries sell their natural resources to pay their debts to wealthy countries. The poor in these countries also utilize the land for farming and sustenance, and these pressures continue to increase as population levels increase.
Clear-cutting can be particularly devastating to forest ecosystems, especially in rainforest ecosystems. Rainforest deforestation negatively affects the whole ecosystem because the clear-cut land is much more vulnerable to soil erosion when no trees remain to hold the soil in place.
The most affected regions
Some of the most affected regions of the world are the Amazon Rainforest, Sumatran Jungles, and forests of British Columbia. These forests have been specifically target for deforestation for a few reasons, but overall for human gain.
- The Amazon rainforest is being clear cut at a rate of 20,000 square miles per year mostly to create more land for farming and pastures for cattle ranching .
- Sumatran rainforests are being destroyed and replaced by massive palm plantations to help feed human obsession with palm oil.
- Canada’s British Columbia is a hotspot for old growth forests that contain some of the most sought-after lumber in the world .
These examples are just a few of the most publicized areas dealing with the problem of deforestation and there are many less well known regions being just as dramatically affected.
Effects of deforestation on animals
Deforestation has real consequences for animals. The most serious impacts of deforestation on animals are listed below.
#1 Habitat loss
Deforestation can lead to a direct loss of wildlife habitat as well as a general degradation of their habitat.
The removal of trees and other types of vegetation reduces available food, shelter, and breeding habitat. Wildlife habitats become fragmented, where native species must live on remaining habitat islands that are surrounded by disturbed land that is being used for agriculture and other uses.
Habitat fragments may be too small to maintain viable populations of animals, and an animal living in one population may no longer be able to freely breed with individuals in other populations. Animals may not be able to find adequate shelter, water, and food to survive within remaining habitat.
Animals may also encounter dangerous situations such as increased human-wildlife conflicts and being hit by vehicles when they attempt to migrate between habitat fragments.
With increased habitat edge, wildlife may experience an increased vulnerability to predation, poaching, wind, sunlight, invasion of exotic plant and animal species into remaining forest habitat, and other factors such as direct exposure to natural disasters that were not as much of a threat prior to the deforestation event.
Some animal species are entirely dependent upon old growth forest habitat, such as the Northern Spotted Owl in the Western United States, and cannot survive in secondary forest habitat. This means that in places where is any deforestation happening, these species cannot thrive and will gradually disappear.
#2 Changing climate
Trees play a vital role in controlling climate.
Because forests store a large amount of the world’s carbon dioxide, deforestation contributes 15 percent of global greenhouse emissions. When forest trees are burned, the carbon that they were storing gets released into the atmosphere.
Climate change leads to new weather patterns, changing levels of precipitation and temperature fluctuations . These climatic changes can have many negative impacts, not only on local populations, but also on wildlife populations around the world as global climate change alters the habitat they depend on.
#3 Higher risk of wildfires and droughts
Deforestation may reduce the remaining forest area’s resilience to threats such as wildfires.
Local hydrological cycles can be dramatically altered, since trees and other vegetation in forests help to retain atmospheric moisture through evaporation and evapotranspiration processes.
With no tree canopy present after deforestation, such changes in the water cycle can lead to much drier and warmer conditions, leading to even further impacts on wildlife habitats .
When trees are destroyed, an integral piece of the forest ecosystem disappears suddenly.
All animals, in one way or another, get energy from plants. Plants make energy from the sun and herbivores eat plants. Carnivores eat herbivores, which gained their energy from plants.
If no plants are present, there is no food in the ecosystem and animals starve .
#5 Increased interaction with us
Deforestation usually means that we are claiming areas which we haven’t previously inhabited.
This means that there will be more interaction between wildlife that lives there and us.
Generally, wildlife interaction with us is negative and can have disastrous consequences for the animals. One of the best examples of our problematic co-existence with large carnivores are wolves. Wolves, once the most widely distributed mammals in the world, were for centuries regarded as our worst enemy for hunting our livestock. The conflict got so far that wolves were extensively hunted down and became a rare sight in many areas of the world.
What animals does deforestation affect the most?
Deforestation has dramatic effects for all animals, whether they live in rivers, oceans, forests, mountains, or skies.
The most affected group of animals are those that are endemic to a specific area or ecosystem, which is directly or closely linked with the forest. This represents animals that are adapted only to their specific habitat. They are often found in remote and isolated areas, like on islands or deep in the rainforest.
Very specialized animals fill a single niche found in an ecosystem. Sometimes the niche is so specialized that it is only found in a small region, like a single lake or one square kilometer of forest. A perfect example of such an animal is the endangered Phillipine Tarsier.
When deforestation occurs in these areas the plant and animal species are unable to move or adapt to a new region, almost always causing their extinction.
How does deforestation affect biodiversity overall?
Habitat destruction is single handedly the largest destroyer of biodiversity.
Since forests contain the largest percentage of the terrestrial biodiversity, deforestation is considered the leading cause of biodiversity loss on the planet.
As deforestation increases, the number of unique species of plants and animals plummets. This can be seen by the increasing rates of extinction across the globe, with extinction rates now higher than at any point in the last 65 million years .
How can we stop deforestation?
Perhaps one of the most effective solutions to the problems of deforestation around the globe is to change the valuation of products that are obtained through deforestation to the valuation of global forests for the important ecosystem services and other important resources they provide, including the storage of carbon in a carbon-constrained future.
Stopping deforestation will take an international effort, as it is a widespread problem that is present on all continents. To be most effective, we cannot focus completely on stopping all logging because it is an integral part of many communities.
Instead, we need focus on using forests in sustainable ways, like limiting logging in old growth forests, not clear-cutting, and increasing the number of seedlings planted.
This is done in four main ways:
- combating illegal logging
- reforming trade agreements
- protecting forested areas
- educating local communities
The maintenance of ample viable forests around the world requires policies and laws and their necessary enforcement to protect the forests that remain and to restore forest habitat globally. By creating government regulation to protect forests and halting illegal logging, local communities are forced to reassess their use of forests.
Economic opportunities should be developed for those reliant upon forest ecosystems for their livelihood in ways that promote forest conservation instead of exploitation. Sustainably managed ecotourism activities may provide some of these opportunities, as well as fair trade products that support sustainable economic uses of forests.
Additionally, trade agreements push governments to use only sustainable products. The use of sustainable forestry certifications schemes, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, is one way to support the sustainable management and preservation of forests around the world.
Finally, planting seedlings to offset trees that are cut down is integral in maintaining tree populations for a sustainable future .
Smart land management practices should be in place to ensure that viable forest resources will remain in the future, and land management techniques such as the creation of wildlife corridors can help to connect wildlife populations in a fragmented landscape.
We know that deforestation is a serious problem for earth. This means it is our responsibility, as a species, to do what we can to prevent the issue from creating a lasting impact on our planet. This requires swift action from local and national governments to make changes that protect the forests we still have.
As individuals we need to make it a priority within our communities to work towards a sustainable future for ourselves, our children, and the earth.