Deforestation of protected areas and illegal hunting of endangered species that live there has a greater impact on biodiversity than climate change, overfishing and the degradation of coral reefs, according to a researcher.
The "rapid disruption" of protected tropical forests is the greatest threat to wildlife, Bill Laurance, a professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, said in an e-mail. He studied 60 protected areas in tropical regions around the world and is the lead author of an article that will be published in tomorrow's issue of Nature.
Tropical forests are the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, and failing to maintain them may drive more species to extinction, he said. To serve as a sanctuary for wildlife, the areas must also be protected from nearby development and other activities in adjacent lands that will have impact on designated preserves.
"We can't just draw lines on the map to designate a protected area," Laurance said. "We also have to protect reserves against encroachment, illegal hunting and other pressures that can infiltrate from outside."
About half of the areas studied "are doing reasonably well," while Laurance classified the others as "suffering." Many of the hardest-hit protected areas receive little, if any, on-the-ground support, he said. The degraded areas are still valuable because of their potential to capture carbon or provide watershed protection.
"It's a mistake to preach despair," he said. "We have to make protected areas work in the tropics -- we just don't have a choice."