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Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas

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The rapid disruption of tropical forests probably imperils global biodiversity more than any other contemporary phenomenon1,2,3. With deforestation advancing quickly, protected areas are increasingly becoming final refuges for threatened species and natural ecosystem processes. However, many protected areas in the tropics are themselves vulnerable to human encroachment and other environmental stresses4,5,6,7,8,9. As pressures mount, it is vital to know whether existing reserves can sustain their biodiversity. A critical constraint in addressing this question has been that data describing a broad array of biodiversity groups have been unavailable for a sufficiently large and representative sample of reserves. Here we present a uniquely comprehensive data set on changes over the past 20 to 30 years in 31 functional groups of species and 21 potential drivers of environmental change, for 60 protected areas stratified across the world’s major tropical regions. Our analysis reveals great variation in reserve ‘health’: about half of all reserves have been effective or performed passably, but the rest are experiencing an erosion of biodiversity that is often alarmingly widespread taxonomically and functionally. Habitat disruption, hunting and forest-product exploitation were the strongest predictors of declining reserve health. Crucially, environmental changes immediately outside reserves seemed nearly as important as those inside in determining their ecological fate, with changes inside reserves strongly mirroring those occurring around them. These findings suggest that tropical protected areas are often intimately linked ecologically to their surrounding habitats, and that a failure to stem broad-scale loss and degradation of such habitats could sharply increase the likelihood of serious biodiversity declines.

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Figure 1: Distribution of the ‘reserve-health index’ for 60 protected areas spanning the world’s major tropical forest regions.
Figure 2: Percentages of reserves that are worsening versus improving for key disturbance-sensitive guilds, contrasted between ‘suffering’ and ‘succeeding’ reserves (which are distinguished by having lower (<−0.25) versus higher (≥−0.25) values for the reserve-health index, respectively).
Figure 3: Effects of improving on-the-ground protection on a relative index of reserve health.
Figure 4: Comparison of ecological changes inside versus outside protected areas, for selected environmental drivers.
Figure 5: Pearson correlations comparing the direction and strength of 21 environmental drivers inside versus outside tropical protected areas.

Change history

  • 12 September 2012

    Axis labelling in Fig. 1 and a typo in the Fig. 2 legend were corrected.


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The study was supported by James Cook University, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, an Australian Laureate Fellowship (to W.F.L.) and NSF grant RCN-0741956. We thank A. Bruner, R. A. Butler, G. R. Clements, R. Condit, C. N. Cook, S. Goosem, J. Geldmann, L. Joppa, S. L. Pimm and O. Venter for comments.

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Authors and Affiliations



W.F.L. conceived the study and coordinated its design, analysis and manuscript preparation. D.C.U., J.R. and M.K. conducted the interviews; C.J.A.B. assisted with data analysis and some writing; and S.P.S., S.G.L., M.C. and W.L. organized data or collected metadata. The remaining authors provided detailed interviews on protected areas and offered feedback on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to William F. Laurance.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-6, Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary Tables 1-6, additional references and a Supplementary Appendix, which comprises a non-interactive copy of an expert questionnaire. (PDF 2171 kb)

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Laurance, W., Carolina Useche, D., Rendeiro, J. et al. Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas. Nature 489, 290–294 (2012).

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