Scientists at James Cook University and Smithsonian Institution have identified infrastructure such as roads, canals, power lines and gas lines as potentially posing the biggest threat to the world’s tropical rainforests.
“Clearing wide paths in any forest has a strong effect on the ecosystem, but these impacts are particularly acute in tropical rainforests,” said Professor William Laurance, a Distinguished Professor at James Cook University and co-author of a paper on the impact of roads in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
The other authors of the paper are Dr Susan Laurance, a biologist from the Smithsonian and Dr Miriam Goosem, a senior lecturer at James Cook.
Dr Goosem said the team used dozens of existing studies done in the Amazon, Australasia and Central Africa to emphasize that roads are the number one threat to the world’s tropical rainforests.
“We believe that maintaining large areas of intact forests without roads should be highest priority of conservationists worldwide,” she said, adding that some species strongly avoid forest edges and are unable to traverse even narrow forest clearings.
“Other tropical species are susceptible to hunting, increased predation, invasive species and being killed by vehicles.”
She said that limiting the width of roads, reducing vehicle speeds and maintaining a continuous forest canopy above roads were ways to reduce the impact on tropical rainforests.
Meanwhile, Dr Susan Laurance said animals see roads as barriers. “A striking feature of tropical forests is the high proportion of species that tend to avoid even narrow clearings or forest edges. Many species – such as those that are completely arboreal, adapted to flying in dense forests, or depend on specialized food resources – are halted by linear clearings.”
There are those species, however, that do not avoid roads or other such clearings, resulting in what the scientists call “road-related mortality.”
[The original press release, titled "Roads top threat to rainforests" can be found here]