Apr 8
Atlantic forest canopy

The Atlantic forest now covers only 8% of its historical range

Despite being one of the most diverse and biologically rich forests in the world, the Atlantic forest in South America is unfortunately also one of the most threatened. Only about eight percent of its original cover remains and its total area has been dramatically reduced to just less than 100,000 square kilometres. If we flip this figure; compared to the Amazon which has lost around 20% of its forest, the Atlantic forest, or Mata Atlântica as it is also known, has seen a staggering 92% decline. To make matters worse, what remains of the forest is severely fragmented and only two percent is still considered to be primary, or pristine, forest.

Iguaçu falls in Atlantic forest

Only 2% of the Atlantic forest is now considered to be primary forest

The Atlantic forest extends along Brazil’s eastern coast, into Paraguay and northeast Argentina. It is home to thousands of species that are not found anywhere else in the world; for example, no fewer than 8,000 of the total 20,000 or more plant species are totally unique to the Atlantic forest, including over half of the forest’s trees. Examples include the Endangered Pau brasil and the Vulnerable Brazilian rosewood tree. But it’s not just the plants: there are many mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates that are found exclusively in the Atlantic forest. As more of the forest is degraded and fragmented by deforestation, these species are increasingly at risk of extinction.

Deforestation in the Atlantic forest is a result of human settlement, dating back centuries to when Europeans arrived in South America and began to clear forest to make way for timber and cattle ranches, as well as to grow crops such as sugarcane, coffee and cocoa. In more recent years land use has shifted towards soy cultivation and pine, tobacco and eucalyptus plantations. The spread of invasive species and the ever-looming presence of climate change are also playing their part, providing competition for food and resources, and decreasing the resiliency of species to changes in their environment.

Brazilian rainforest cleared for cattle ranching

Brazilian rainforest cleared for cattle ranching

Of the 100,000 remaining square kilometres, only approximately 23,800 square kilometres are under protection; less than 2% of the forest’s historic range. There are, however, also a range of conservation initiatives working to protect and restore parts of the Atlantic forest.

One such reforestation project by The Nature Conservancy began in 2008 with the ambitious aim of planting one billion trees in Brazil’s Atlantic forest within seven years. If successful, the ‘Plant a Billion Trees’ project will repopulate 2.5 million acres of land, increasing the forest’s significance as a carbon sink that will potentially be able to remove four million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year. As numbers currently stand, 12,574,689 trees have been planted, with one tree planted per dollar donated. Despite being far from the target, this level of reforestation is still significant.

The Nature Conservancy are not alone in their bid to reforest areas of the Atlantic forest. The Alstom Foundation’s project aims to promote long-term sustainability in the remaining forest, and to reconnect fragmented areas which will help to support wildlife. Its target is to restore 15 million hectares of degraded lands by the year 2040, amounting to 12 percent of the forest’s original ecosystem.

Jaguar resting in a tree

The jaguar and many other species could soon be wiped out in the Atlantic forest

While we could go ahead and list every project working to reforest areas of the Atlantic forest, the important message to take from this is why these collective efforts are significant. Many species are on the verge of being lost from the Mata Atlântica, including the jaguar, lowland tapir and giant anteater, and many more species will continue to decline if further action is not taken. Large numbers of these species occur nowhere else in the world, and they require large areas of connected forest to survive and reproduce.

With climate change on the tip of everyone’s tongue, restoration in this forest could serve to provide a much-needed carbon sink, able to remove and store huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Reforestation projects are also able to help local communities to build their knowledge of soil use, conservation and land management, enabling them to protect their land in the future and encouraging them to undertake their own forest restoration, thereby continuing reforestation efforts in the long-term.

Find out more about the Atlantic forest on ARKive’s Atlantic forest ecoregion page.

Find out more about reforestation in the Atlantic forest on ARKive’s reforestation topic page.

Become a conservation professional and help plant trees in the Atlantic forest with Team WILD!

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Mar 13

Many species of endangered tropical trees will be given greater protection after delegates at the CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand voted on new restrictions on trade.

Photo of leaves of Thailand rosewood

The Thailand rosewood is just one of the species that has been given new protection

Delegates at the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties agreed to give extra protection to species of rosewood and ebony that are seriously threatened by illegal logging. The new restrictions will involve listing these trees on Appendix II of CITES, meaning exports and imports should be carefully controlled. The listing covers many species from South America and Southeast Asia, as well as all of Madagascar’s ebony and rosewood trees.

There are 80 ebony species known in Madagascar but they are literally identifying more right now and there may be as many as 240 species in all,” said Noel McGough of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, one of the members of the UK delegation at the conference.

The restrictions will also cover species such as the Brazilian rosewood and the Thailand rosewood.

Illegal timber trade

The illegal trade in timber is estimated to be worth around $30 billion each year, with rosewood and ebony being in great demand for high-end products such as luxury furniture and musical instruments. Illegal logging of these species is being fuelled by increasing demand from China, with trees such as the Thailand rosewood sometimes selling for up to a staggering $50,000 per cubic metre.

Speaking about the listing of Thailand rosewood, Faith Doherty of the Environmental Investigation Agency said, “With this listing, the consumer markets will need to work with Thailand and the range states of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to ensure [Thailand] Rosewood is actually protected, especially as there is a logging ban in Thailand. Finally, we have a legal tool to use in China, the main destination and where rosewood prices on the black market are spurring a flood of smuggling and associated violence.”

Photo of Dalbergia xerophila leaves and seed pods

Dalbergia xerophila, an Endangered Madagascan rosewood species

Many ebony products from Madagascar also end up in China. Despite a ban on exports, Madagascar is experiencing an illegal logging crisis, putting the country’s already threatened forests and wildlife under even more pressure. The new trade restrictions mean that exporting countries now have a legal obligation to ensure that the level of logging is not detrimental to the survival of the listed species, and trade sanctions can be imposed on any country that over-exports them.

Fighting crime

The illegal logging trade is thought to be worth up to $100 billion each year, and also accounts for 15 to 30 percent of all deforestation in tropical regions. The illegal trade not only devastates forests, but also impacts upon local people, robs governments of important tax revenue, and is associated with violence and other crimes such as human trafficking, drugs and weapons sales.

Regulating the international trade will give the chance to feed money back to the poor local communities,” said Noel McGough. “Illegal trade just drains money away from them.”

Photo of Diospyros mun mature tree

Like many related species, the ebony tree Diospyros mun is threatened by high demand for its timber

Greater protection welcomed

Campaigners have welcomed the greater protection for these tropical trees, which stands in contrast to the slow pace of progress in tackling ivory poaching and other trade issues.

Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation said, “I think it is exciting to see that CITES is being brave enough in the face of very persuasive commercial operations to address tree species. Everybody now recognises that there is a serious crisis out there – the demand side of the equation has to be addressed and the only way of doing that is to put these species on Appendix II.”

The fight against illegal logging has been strengthened in recent years, and in the United States, Australia and the EU it is a crime to import or sell any wood products made from illegally logged timber. The new protection for ebony and rosewood species is a further step forward in the battle to save these highly threatened trees from extinction.

 

Read more on this story at BBC News, Mongabay and The Guardian.

View photos of ebony and rosewood species on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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