University of Wisconsin–Madison
Spatial Analysis For Conservation and Sustainability

Early warning sign of forest loss in protected areas

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As humanity is facing the double challenge of species extinctions and climate change, designating parts of forests as protected areas is a key conservation strategy.1–4 Protected areas, encompassing 14.9% of the Earth’s land surface and 19% of global forests, can prevent forest loss but do not do so perfectly everywhere. 5–12 The reasons why protection only works in some areas are difficult to generalize: older and newer parks, protected areas with higher and lower suitability for agriculture, and more and less strict protection can be more effective at preventing forest loss than their counterparts.6,8,9,12–16 Yet predicting future forest loss within protected areas is crucial to proactive conservation. Here, we identify an early warning sign of subsequent forest loss, based on forest loss patterns in strict protected areas and their surrounding landscape worldwide, from 2000 to 2018.17,18 We found that a low level in the absolute forest cover immediately outside of a protected area signals a high risk of future forest loss inside the protected area itself. When the amount of forest left outside drops to <20%, the protected area is likely to experience rates of forest loss matching those in the wider landscape, regardless of its protection status (e.g., 5% loss outside will be matched by 5% loss inside). This knowledge could be used to direct funding to protected areas threatened by imminent forest loss, helping to proactively bolster protection to prevent forest loss, especially in countries where detailed information is lacking.