Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas

This article has been updated


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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.

Similar content being viewed by others

Change history

  • 12 September 2012

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


  1. Pimm, S. L. & Raven, P. R. Biodiversity: extinction by numbers. Nature 403, 843–845 (2000)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Bradshaw, C. J. A., Sodhi, N. S. & Brook, B. W. Tropical turmoil—a biodiversity tragedy in progress. Front. Ecol. Environ 7, 79–87 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Gibson, L. et al. Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity. Nature 478, 378–381 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Bruner, A. G., Gullison, R., Rice, R. & da Fonseca, G. Effectiveness of parks in protecting tropical biodiversity. Science 291, 125–128 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Curran, L. M. et al. Lowland forest loss in protected areas of Indonesian Borneo. Science 303, 1000–1003 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. DeFries, R., Hansen, A., Newton, A. C. & Hansen, M. C. Increasing isolation of protected areas in tropical forests over the past twenty years. Ecol. Appl. 15, 19–26 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Lovejoy, T. E. Protected areas: A prism for a changing world. Trends Ecol. Evol. 21, 329–333 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Possingham, H. P., Wilson, K. A., Andelman, S. J. & Vynne, C. H. in Principles of Conservation Biology (eds Groom, M. J., Meffe, G. K. & Carroll, C. R. ) (Sinauer, 2006)

    Google Scholar 

  9. Joppa, L. N., Loarie, S. & Pimm, S. L. On the protection of “protected areas”. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 6673–6678 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Jenkins, C. N. & Joppa, L. Expansion of the global terrestrial protected area system. Biol. Conserv. 142, 2166–2174 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Asner, G. P. et al. Selective logging in the Brazilian Amazon. Science 310, 480–482 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Wright, S. J., Sanchez-Azofeifa, G., Portillo-Quintero, C. & Davies, D. Poverty and corruption compromise tropical forest reserves. Ecol. Appl. 17, 1259–1266 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Adeney, J. M., Christensen, N. & Pimm, S. L. Reserves protect against deforestation fires in the Amazon. PLoS ONE 4, e5014 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Peres, C. A., Barlow, J. & Laurance, W. F. Detecting anthropogenic disturbance in tropical forests. Trends Ecol. Evol. 21, 227–229 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Hansen, A. J. & DeFries, R. Ecological mechanisms linking protected areas to surrounding lands. Ecol. Appl. 17, 974–988 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Laurance, W. F. et al. Biomass collapse in Amazonian forest fragments. Science 278, 1117–1118 (1997)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Woodroffe, R. & Ginsberg, J. R. Edge effects and the extinction of populations inside protected areas. Science 280, 2126–2128 (1998)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Terborgh, J. et al. Ecological meltdown in predator-free forest fragments. Science 294, 1923–1926 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Laurance, W. F. et al. The fate of Amazonian forest fragments: a 32-year investigation. Biol. Conserv. 144, 56–67 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Brooks, T. M., Pimm, S. L. & Oyugi, J. O. Time lag between deforestation and bird extinction in tropical forest fragments. Conserv. Biol. 13, 1140–1150 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Peres, C. A. Why we need megareserves in Amazonia. Conserv. Biol. 19, 728–733 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Maiorano, L., Falcucci, A. & Boitani, L. Size-dependent resistance of protected areas to land-use change. Proc. R. Soc. B 275, 1297–1304 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Estes, J. A. et al. Trophic downgrading of Planet Earth. Science 333, 301–306 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Wells, M. P. & McShane, T. O. Integrating protected area management with local needs and aspirations. Ambio 33, 513–519 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Scherl, L. M. et al. Can Protected Areas Contribute to Poverty Reduction? Opportunities and Limitations (IUCN, 2004)

  26. Chan, K. M. A. & Daily, G. C. The payoff of conservation investments in tropical countryside. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 19342–19347 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Porter-Bolland, L. et al. Community-managed forests and protected areas: an assessment of their conservation effectiveness across the tropics. For. Ecol. Manage. 256, 6–17 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Thomas, C. D. et al. Extinction risk from climate change. Nature 427, 145–148 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Sekercioglu, C. H., Schneider, S. H., Fay, J. P. & Loarie, S. R. Climate change, elevational range shifts, and bird extinctions. Conserv. Biol. 22, 140–150 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Shoo, L. P. et al. Targeted protection and restoration to conserve tropical biodiversity in a warming world. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 186–193 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William F. Laurance.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

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)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing