Deforested hills in the Massif De La Hotte, Haiti

Deforestation has laid waste to the Chaîne des Matheux mountain range (above) and dozens more peaks in Haiti. Credit: Eladio Fernandez

Conservation biology

A once-lush country on the verge of total deforestation

The mountains of Haiti could be stripped of trees completely in under two decades.

Haiti’s forests have been nearly obliterated, making the island nation one of the world’s most deforested countries — and hurling it into the throes of a mass extinction.

Primary forests are woods that have not been disturbed by humans. Such forests, especially those in the biodiversity-rich tropics, often harbour unique species.

Haiti has experienced massive deforestation, but Blair Hedges at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and his colleagues could not find accurate estimates of the country’s remaining primary forest. The team examined satellite images of Haiti to determine primary-forest coverage, and went into the field to tally the number of amphibian and reptile species there.

The researchers found that between 1988 and 2016, 42 of Haiti’s 50 highest and largest mountains had been stripped of all primary forest. The team estimated that in a subset of the peaks, deforestation had wiped out 95% of endemic species — those that had been restricted to a single mountain.

The eight remaining mountain forests, and up to 83% of Haiti’s species, will vanish by 2036 if deforestation continues at its current rate, the researchers predicted.