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Global Forest Wildlife Populations in Significant Decline

13 August 2019, Woking (UK) – The first-ever global assessment of forest biodiversity, Below the Canopy shows that monitored forest-dwelling wildlife populations have shrunk on average by more than half (53%) since 1970. The new WWF report highlights the multitude of threats forest-living species are facing, and shows that habitat loss and degradation, primarily caused by human activity, is the cause of 60% of the threats to forests and forest species. Declines were greatest in tropical forests, such as the Amazon rainforest.

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The landmark report shows forests, home to well over half of the world’s land-based species and one of our most important carbon sinks, are vital to the health of the planet. Forest wildlife, in turn, provides vital functions to keep forests healthy and productive. These essential operations include pollination, seed dispersal and other crucial roles that affect natural regeneration and carbon storage. If we are to reverse the decline in biodiversity worldwide and avoid a climate crisis, we need to safeguard forests and the species that live in them.

WWF is calling on world leaders to declare a planetary emergency and secure a New Deal for Nature and People by 2020 to stop climate breakdown, safeguard our planet’s remaining natural spaces, and make our consumption and production model more sustainable. Protecting and restoring forests must be at the heart of this agreement.

Forests are complex systems that depend on the wildlife that live in them to keep them healthy, and the rapid decrease in forest wildlife in recent decades is an urgent warning sign. Not only are forests a treasure trove of life on earth, they’re also our greatest natural ally in the fight against climate breakdown. We lose them at our peril. We need global leaders to immediately kickstart action to protect and restore nature and keep our forests standing.” - Will Baldwin-Cantello, WWF Global Forest Lead

Remarkably, we know relatively little about real changes to the species that live in our forests at a global level. The Forest Specialist Index, developed by WWF following the Living Planet Index methodology (used within WWF’s flagship Living Planet Report), focuses on species that depend entirely on forests. This indicator provides an accurate representation of forest ecosystem health. The UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) co-led the analysis and modelling for this report in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). The Forest Specialist Index shows that monitored populations of forest-living birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined, on average, by 53% between 1970 and 2014 - the most recent year for which data is available. Most of this loss is occurring in the tropics, where there is the most wildlife to lose.

The first step towards protecting threatened wildlife is to understand trends in their populations and what drives their decline. By focusing our well-established Living Planet Index to create a new indicator for forest species, we can look below the canopy to see how wildlife within those forests is faring. Our analysis does just this, and reveals that many of the animal species that rely entirely on forests are dropping in number. Using this new indicator, we can continue to track forest wildlife and measure progress towards international agreements and biodiversity targets.” - report author Louise McRae, Conservation Scientist, Zoological Society of London

The Forest Specialist Index also assessed whether forest cover alone - the most commonly used indicator globally - was an accurate indication of the health of wildlife below the canopy. The research found that while tackling deforestation and increasing forest cover are both essential to restore nature, these are steps alone are not sufficient.

“Future global frameworks and all future global forest assessments must include direct measures of both forest biodiversity and forest cover change. If we don’t address threats below the canopy we risk falling further into the ‘empty forests syndrome,’ where trees stand but much of the wildlife is lost,” Baldwin-Cantello said.

While "empty forests syndrome" does not yet affect the Green Heart of Europe, it may well do so in the foreseeable future. Therefore, we must persist in our efforts to preserve harmonious land use in our region, including forest management, and protect the most valuable surviving ecosystems. For instance, the mosaic forest landscapes of the Danube-Carpathian Basin are still home to two-thirds of Europe’s large carnivore populations such as brown bears, wolves and lynx. However, the number of capercaille (wood grouse) in Slovakia has severely declined as the result of salvage felling and tree cover shrinkage. Other species are responding badly to overexploitation, invasive species, climate change, poaching, weak law enforcement, poor wildlife management and disease pressures, not necessarily connected to tree cover.

One of the solutions WWF promotes for preserving or improving forest biodiversity is maintaining a sufficient amount of deadwood in our forests. This is one of the lessons our virgin forests are teaching us as they contain impressive amounts of deadwood in all stages of decay. Deadwood-dependent species are key in preserving the entire trophic/food chains of forest ecosystems, thus securing their long-term stability against external threats intensified by climate change. Moreover, longer production cycles should be respected, and when replanting, climate change resilient and disease-resistant native deciduous tree species should be used. We urgently require regional and national studies in Central and Eastern Europe to assess the impacts of illegal logging, overexploitation, forest degradation and climate change on habitat health, and wildlife population size and trends, especially for forest specialist species.

While the findings of the Forest Specialist Index paint a gloomy picture of the state of forest biodiversity, a couple conservation success stories demonstrate that forest-dwelling animals can recover with the right interventions. From monkeys in Costa Rica to gorillas in central and east Africa, the report highlights a number of solutions that have successfully helped populations of forest animals thrive again.

Protecting wildlife and reversing the decline of nature requires urgent global action. The report points to 2020 as a crucial year for securing international agreements for a New Deal for Nature and People, through a commitment by heads of state at the 75th United Nations General Assembly. World leaders are also expected to review the progress made on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and, crucially, negotiate new 10-year targets for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Forests need to be front and centre of this New Deal for Nature and People because of their importance for biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and people, through the provision of ecosystem services, such as water and air purification, nutrient cycling, soil erosion control, and supplies of food, wood and other products.

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