New Research Finds Half of Amazonian Tree Species Could Be in Danger by 2050

For the first time, we know exactly how much of the Amazon rainforest is threatened.

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The undoing of the Amazon is one of the big bads: Besides destroying one of the most beautiful and fascinating places on the planet, ongoing forest loss leads to soil erosion, altered climatic patterns, habitat degradation, and diminished ecosystem services. But while we have an understanding of deforestation rates, we’ve had a pretty vague idea of how many tree species have been lost and where until now. Today, an international team of scientists — a group that includes researchers from all Amazonian countries — released the most comprehensive survey of Amazon forest to date.

There’s good news and there’s bad news.

First the bad: Scientists found that 36 to 57 percent of all Amazonian tree species are currently threatened (they used spatial distribution models that incorporate historical and projected deforestation). These species are likely to qualify as “globally threatened,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. If they make it onto the IUCN’s so-called Red List, then the number of threatened plant species on Earth will increase by 22 percent. Their analysis also found that Amazon forests have already lost about 12 percent of their original extent and could possibly lose another nine to 28 percent by 2050.

“Before the study we thought a handful of species were threatened and now we have found that quite a lot are,” said co-author Nigel Pitman of Chicago’s Field Museum in a press conference on Friday. “The story is that we have never had a good idea of how many species are threatened in the Amazon — now with this study we have an estimate.”

But while this certainly isn’t happy news, it doesn’t necessarily mean that things are getting worse.

Logging in Bolivia.

Science Advances

“When we report these numbers, we try to take pains to hold off a common misconception,” said Pitman. “You might tend to think that we are saying things have gotten a lot worse — that’s not what we are saying.” Really, the idea is that we now know what those numbers are, compared to before.

The researchers point out that protected areas and indigenous territories now cover over half of the Amazon basin.

“In recent decades Amazon countries have made major strides in expanding parks and strengthening indigenous land rights,” said lead author Hans ter Steege in a press release. “And our study shows this could have big benefits for biodiversity.”

These protected areas are clutch — preventing deforestation in these zones will significantly reduce the number of threatened Amazonian trees, which besides conserving biodiversity, helps protect its ability to absorb carbon. Deforestation directly counters any carbon absorption that is happening.

A loss of biodiversity affects not only whatever effects the forest has on countering climate change, but also means we’re going to miss out some resources. The rubber industry of Brazil has already collapsed, while Brazil nuts are now actually produced in Peru and Bolivia.

These losses ironically come as a direct result of the overconsumption of other resources: Amazon forests are burned and cleared to make way for crops like palm oil and soy. The production of these crops is expected to double in the future.

While progress toward Amazon protection seems to be moving forward, scientists warn that pressures on the forest for food, biofuels, and fibers could conceivably reverse this trend.

“It’s a battle we’re going to see play out in our lifetimes,” said co-author William Laurance in a press release. “Either we stand up and protect these critical parks and indigenous reserves, or deforestation will erode them until we see large-scale extinctions.”

At Friday’s press conference, the scientists emphasized that while the number of protected zones are encouraging, Amazonian countries must continue their commitment to preserving these regions. They also took time to state that they hope people are currently turning their eyes to the most recent environmental disaster.

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