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Keywords:

  • biodiversity hotspots;
  • deforestation;
  • exotic tree species;
  • fuelwood;
  • India;
  • plantations;
  • remote sensing;
  • satellite imagery

Abstract

India sustains some of the world's most imperiled forests. The Forest Survey of India recently announced that forest cover in India had expanded by nearly 5% over the past decade. This result, while technically accurate, is misleading. The Forest Survey estimates forest cover by using automated algorithms to analyze satellite imagery—an approach that fails to distinguish native forests from tree plantations, which are often monocultures of exotic species that have limited value for endangered biodiversity. Since the early 1990s, tree plantations have expanded in India at an estimated rate of roughly 15,400 km2/year. Subtracting plantations from total forest cover shows that native forests in India have declined by 1.5%–2.7% per year. The limited precision of our estimate highlights a paucity of data on native forest cover in India—a problem requiring urgent attention. Forest cutting for fuelwood has been the biggest driver of forest loss and thinning in India. Like India, many nations now rely on satellite imagery to discern changes in vegetation cover, and these frequently lump native, exotic, and degraded forest types. Without sufficiently high-resolution imagery and adequate safeguards, such approaches could paint a misleading picture of the fate of the world's native forests.