Concerted political attention has focused on reducing deforestation1,2,3, and this remains the cornerstone of most biodiversity conservation strategies4,5,6. However, maintaining forest cover may not reduce anthropogenic forest disturbances, which are rarely considered in conservation programmes6. These disturbances occur both within forests, including selective logging and wildfires7,8, and at the landscape level, through edge, area and isolation effects9. Until now, the combined effect of anthropogenic disturbance on the conservation value of remnant primary forests has remained unknown, making it impossible to assess the relative importance of forest disturbance and forest loss. Here we address these knowledge gaps using a large data set of plants, birds and dung beetles (1,538, 460 and 156 species, respectively) sampled in 36 catchments in the Brazilian state of Pará. Catchments retaining more than 69–80% forest cover lost more conservation value from disturbance than from forest loss. For example, a 20% loss of primary forest, the maximum level of deforestation allowed on Amazonian properties under Brazil’s Forest Code5, resulted in a 39–54% loss of conservation value: 96–171% more than expected without considering disturbance effects. We extrapolated the disturbance-mediated loss of conservation value throughout Pará, which covers 25% of the Brazilian Amazon. Although disturbed forests retained considerable conservation value compared with deforested areas, the toll of disturbance outside Pará’s strictly protected areas is equivalent to the loss of 92,000–139,000 km2 of primary forest. Even this lowest estimate is greater than the area deforested across the entire Brazilian Amazon between 2006 and 2015 (ref. 10). Species distribution models showed that both landscape and within-forest disturbances contributed to biodiversity loss, with the greatest negative effects on species of high conservation and functional value. These results demonstrate an urgent need for policy interventions that go beyond the maintenance of forest cover to safeguard the hyper-diversity of tropical forest ecosystems.
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This work was supported by grants from Brazil (CNPq 574008/2008-0, 458022/2013-6, and 400640/2012-0; Embrapa SEG:02.08.06.005.00; The Nature Conservancy – Brasil; CAPES scholarships) the UK (Darwin Initiative 17-023; NE/F01614X/1; NE/G000816/1; NE/F015356/2; NE/l018123/1; NE/K016431/1), Formas 2013-1571, and Australian Research Council grant DP120100797. Institutional support was provided by the Herbário IAN in Belém, LBA in Santarém and FAPEMAT. R.M. and J.R.T. were supported by Australian Research Council grant DP120100797. This is paper no. 49 in the Sustainable Amazon Network series.