COP26: This is how mass deforestation is wiping out species around the world

These iconic species could be gone within decades.

November 2, 2021, 5:47 PM

The mass-clearing of trees will be the doom of many forms of life on this planet.

Forests are critical to the Earth's ecology. They capture and store carbon out of the atmosphere. They can alter the air quality and quantity of drinking water. And they provide the most habitat for the world's terrestrial species.

And yet, alarming rates of deforestation are continuing all over the globe, despite warnings from scientists and urgent calls from environmental activists to cease the clearing as much as possible.

The planet is losing an estimated 137 species of plants, animals and insects every day due to deforestation, according to the World Animal Foundation.

Here are four important species at risk of extinction, each in a region heavily affected by deforestation.

Harpy eagle, the Amazon rainforest

Populations of the harpy eagle, one of the largest eagle species in the world, are dwindling as tree canopies in the Amazon rainforest disappear, and along with it the habitat for the eagles' preferred prey, a new study published Wednesday in Nature Scientific Reports found.

The eagles rely on specific prey that live in the canopy forests: two-toed sloths, brown capuchin monkeys and grey woolly monkeys, but as the food supply decreased, the eagles did not switch to alternative prey, the researchers found.

The eagles would then deliver prey to their hatchlings less frequently, and when they did, the animals tended to have a smaller estimated weight in landscapes with 50% to 70% deforestation, according to the study.

The researchers observed multiple eaglet deaths from starvation and did not locate any nests in areas with more than 70% deforestation.

PHOTO:A Harpy Eagle perches on tree branch outside Panama City on June 17, 2013.
A Harpy Eagle perches on tree branch outside Panama City on June 17, 2013.
Rodrigo Arangua/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Brazil is home to 2.1 million square miles of rain forest -- more than 65% of all the rain forest in the world, according to the World Animal Foundation.

But because of the Brazilian government's dedication to meat and leather trade, about 15% of the world's tropical forest cover was cleared between 1991 and 2004, according to the Foundation.

The harpy eagle is at risk of disappearing in a similar fashion as 10 mammal, 20 bird and eight amphibian species during three decades of deforestation, according to the foundation. The species is listed as near threatened, with a decreasing population, on the International Union of Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

Apex predators are threatened around the world, and their extinctions are often driven by failure to acquire prey due to "severe prey scarcity," according to researchers.

Sumatran orangutan, Southeast Asia

The palm oil industry, 85% of which is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, has wiped out a critical amount of trees in Southeast Asia -- and with it, many endangered species.

Less than 80,000 orangutans are left in the world, and all of them live in Indonesia and Malaysia. Their habitats are under "constant threat" of deforestation, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Up to 3,000 are killed every year, according to the Orangutan Conservancy.

The trees are cleared by illegal logging and for conversion from rain forests to palm oil plantations. About 80% of the orangutan's habitat was cleared in the 1990s and early 2000s by degradation, fragmentation and clearing -- and sometimes by intentionally set fires, the magazine Scientific American reported.

PHOTO: A Sumatran Orangutan Pongo forages in Southeast Aceh, Indonesia. April 4, 2021.
A Sumatran Orangutan Pongo forages in Southeast Aceh, Indonesia. April 4, 2021.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images, FILE

Orangutans are agile climbers and "supremely adapted to life in trees," and it's rare for adult orangutans to ever touch the ground, according Scientific American.

The orangutans are then forced to new areas in search for food, often bringing them in contact with humans, which leads to them being killed as "pests," according to the Orangutan Conservancy.

Poachers are also targeting orangutans for the bush meat trade, ironically often by loggers who are clearing the forest, since the logging companies do not provide food for the workers, according to the magazine.

The Sumatran orangutan is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN's Red List.

Koala, Australia

Koalas have been on the decline due to deforestation even before the 2019 Australian bushfires wiped out an estimated 5,000 of the marsupials.

Between 2012 and 2016, at least 5,183 koalas were killed due to the bulldozing of trees, the World Wildlife Fund Australia found.

The koalas live in eucalyptus trees in forests and woodland, using them as both food and shelter. The habitats are left fragmented or completely destroyed as a result of the clearing, and they are forced to the ground to seek alternative shelter. They are often hit by cars, attacked by dogs or contract diseases, according to WWF Australia.

"If you lose your home and your food source then you are doomed," Deborah Tabart, chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation, told ABC News over email.

PHOTO: A Koala joey is comforted by its mother in Sydney, Australia, March 2, 2021.
A Koala joey is comforted by its mother in Sydney, Australia, March 2, 2021.
Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images, FILE

Protecting the habitat is the "only way" to save the species, Tabart said. The Australian Koala Foundation has proposed the Koala Protection Act, which would focus on protecting trees, including habitats that are empty. While current federal legislation focuses on protecting the koala species itself, its habitat "is almost impossible to protect," according to the foundation.

The organization is also calling for a moratorium on logging of native forests, protection of all koala habitat and better management of plantation forests adjacent to koala habitats.

The species is listed as vulnerable with a decreasing population on the IUCN's Red List. At the current rate, koalas could become extinct by 2050, according to WWF Australia.

Jaguar, The Americas

Populations of the largest species of cat in the Western Hemisphere are continuing to decrease due to loss of habitat.

While jaguars tend to live in habitat with dense tree canopy cover, such as the Amazon rainforest in Brazil or the Maya Forest in Central America, their range historically came as far north as New Mexico and Arizona, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The big cats require expansive areas of land for survival, but their current range is now just 51% of its historic range, according to the IUCN.

Accelerated deforestation continue to threaten the jaguar habitat, especially when it occurs in corridors that connect conservation areas, according to a 2016 study published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation. Without the corridors to travel through, the populations can become isolated and lose genetic diversity, which could then affect the short and long-term survival of the species.

PHOTO: A North American Jaguar sits in Belize, Jan. 01, 1990.
A North American Jaguar sits in Belize, Jan. 01, 1990.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images, FILE

In Gran Chaco, South America's largest tropical dry forest located in Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, about a third of critical jaguar habitat has been lost since the mid-1980s due to deforestation driven by agricultural expansion, a study published in Biodiversity Research in 2019 found.

There is a possibility that jaguars could reestablish a population in the United States through Mexico, which is the current northern edge of the range, Dan Thornton, assistant professor in the Washington State University School of the Environment and one of the authors of the study, told Washington State Magazine.

Jaguars are listed a near threatened with a decreasing population on the IUCN's Red List. They are so elusive, that it is difficult to estimate how many are left in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

This story was originally published on July 3, 2021.

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