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The future of tropical forests



This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Corrigendum for Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 2010. 1195: 1–27 Volume 1268, 157, Article first published online: 20 September 2012

Address for correspondence: S. Joseph Wright, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Unit 0948, DPO 34002-0948.


Five anthropogenic drivers–land use change, wood extraction, hunting, atmospheric change, climate change–will largely determine the future of tropical forests. The geographic scope and intensity of these five drivers are in flux. Contemporary land use change includes deforestation (∼64,000 km2 yr−1 for the entire tropical forest biome) and natural forests regenerating on abandoned land (∼21,500 km2 yr−1 with just 29% of the biome evaluated). Commercial logging is shifting rapidly from Southeast Asia to Africa and South America, but local fuelwood consumption continues to constitute 71% of all wood production. Pantropical rates of net deforestation are declining even as secondary and logged forests increasingly replace old-growth forests. Hunters reduce frugivore, granivore and browser abundances in most forests. This alters seed dispersal, seed and seedling survival, and hence the species composition and spatial template of plant regeneration. Tropical governments have responded to these local threats by protecting 7% of all land for the strict conservation of nature—a commitment that is only matched poleward of 40°S and 70°N. Protected status often fails to stop hunters and is impotent against atmospheric and climate change. There are increasing reports of stark changes in the structure and dynamics of protected tropical forests. Four broad classes of mechanisms might contribute to these changes. Predictions are developed to distinguish among these mechanisms.