Beneath the canopy

Forests contain the overwhelming majority of life on Earth, including a staggering 80% of the planet’s terrestrial species. From the humid tropical rainforests of the Amazon to the temperate treetops of the Pacific Northwest, forests are incredibly dynamic and diverse environments; they provide warmth, shelter, water and food, and so are havens for a multitude of plants and animals.

But, while it can be easy to look at a forest and simply see ‘trees’, the incredible diversity of this plant group should not go unappreciated. There are over 60,000 different tree species in the world and natural forests can be made up of tens, hundreds or even thousands of different species.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of forest: tropical forests, which are confined to a broad geographical band that straddles the equator; temperate forests with highly variable seasons, which paint the northern hemisphere in rich tones of gold, ochre and red as deciduous species shed their leaves in autumn; and boreal forests, also known as taiga, which grow in northerly latitudes and are dominated by evergreen conifers that can tolerate freezing cold and a blanket of snow for months on end.

Many forests are so-called biodiversity hotspots – they are absolutely packed to the brim with life. Rainforests are the undisputed champions: a single square kilometre of Amazonian rainforest can harbour up to 100 different tree species, including 35-metre-tall giants encased in their own collection of vines, mosses and bromeliads. These towering titans and the fertile forest floor at their roots are a treasure trove of wildlife, from monkey-eating eagles and dazzling macaws to diminutive but deadly poison-dart frogs and a kaleidoscope of butterflies and other insects that fill the air like animated confetti.

Temperate forests, meanwhile, are alive with arguably less exotic but nevertheless iconic species. Oak, elm, beech, cedar and maple trees are just a few species typical of these forests, standing amid common herbs and shade-loving wild flowers. Squirrels, weasels, deer, wolves, wild cats and bears all favour these wooded habitats, while birds of prey wheel overhead during the day, and badgers, bats and owls emerge at night.

The boreal forest is a particularly challenging environment, and so biodiversity here is comparatively low but superbly adapted. The trees and other flora species tend to be particularly hardy (for example pine, fir, spruce, birch and aspen) and the fauna is equally so. Swarms of insects proliferate in the brief window of summer before vanishing abruptly. Migratory birds make themselves scarce after the short breeding season, while species that cannot relocate need to be adequately equipped to survive the extremes of winter. Some – like elk, wolves and the Eurasian lynx – grow a heavy winter coat. Others – such as boreal and great grey owls – rely on a thick quilt of feathers. Bears hibernate and beavers retreat to their lodge. Wood frogs have natural anti-freeze in their blood.

Forests cover roughly 30% of the total land area on Earth (4.03 billion hectares).

80%

of the total plant mass on Earth is contained within forests.

Over 50%

of the animals on Earth are found in rainforests.

Threats to forest environments

The key threats to forest environments are connected to human activity.

As the global human population grows, increasingly vast areas of forest are being lost to agricultural conversion, urbanisation, timber extraction and other forms of commercial exploitation.

Many of the world’s temperate forests have already been cleared, and in the name of economic progress and development, we continue to encroach on the last remaining forested areas. Enormous tracts of rainforest are being destroyed or degraded to accommodate human settlement, cattle ranching, oil palm plantations and other large-scale activities driven by the growing demands of our consumer society.

The slow-growing boreal forests of the far north – Alaska, Canada, Russia – in turn are threatened by the oil and natural gas industries, since many such forests are thought to sit atop oil reserves, and are thus of interest to developers struggling to meet the demand for fossil fuels.

Many forest-dependent species are uniquely adapted to their habitat and would struggle to survive outside this environment. Over 10,000 tree species are themselves threatened with extinction, and often the risks to a particular species are unique.

Forest ecosystems are bound together in a set of mutually dependent relationships known collectively as an ecosystem, and any disruption to that system – whether small or dramatic – has a knock-on effect. At its most devastating, deforestation can result in a catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

Healthy, intact forests are vital to our own survival, as well as that of the animal and plant species they harbour. We depend on them for the very air that we breathe, as well as for clean water, rich and stable soils, flood protection, timber, food and pharmaceutical ingredients. Forests also play a crucial role in combating global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere.

Conversely, rapidly rising global temperatures are not only increasing the risk of catastrophic forest fires, but also threaten to alter the composition of forests across the globe, helping the more adaptable species to thrive while hindering others. This will upset the equilibrium of delicate forest ecosystems, further reducing their resilience to climate change and diminishing their carbon storage potential.

How are we helping to protect forest ecosystems?

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has an extensive track record in forest protection dating back half a century. In past decades our work has focused predominantly on tropical rainforests in areas such as the Amazon basin, Ecuador’s Chocó rainforest, Central America, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia.

More recently, our remit has broadened to encompass ecosystems as varied as West African rainforest, Portugal’s cork oak forests and the fruit-and-nut forests of Central Asia. We place particular emphasis on working with communities to ensure that they participate actively in – and benefit directly from – forest conservation initiatives in their own backyards.

We are also acutely aware of the importance of taking a species-level approach as well as an ecosystem-level one in order to maintain the incredible diversity of tree species in the world. Despite the fact that one in six tree species is threatened with extinction, conservation effort to date has largely failed to consider trees as being in need of conservation management in their own right.

In 1999, recognising this shortfall, FFI joined forces with Botanical Gardens Conservation International to establish the Global Trees Campaign, through which we have supported the conservation of more than 180 tree species in 29 countries to date.

Other examples of FFI’s forest conservation work include:

  • Safeguarding a viable corridor of montado (cork oak) forest to support the recovery of the critically endangered Iberian lynx
  • Protecting the ancient fruit-and-nut forests of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which harbour globally important biodiversity (including the critically endangered Bukharan pear and the endangered Niedzwetzky’s apple) and are vital for community livelihoods
  • Working with our partners and indigenous communities in Belize to promote environmentally sustainable livelihoods that do not compromise the ecological integrity of forest corridors
  • Piloting a community-based approach to forest conservation in Liberia using a mechanism (REDD+) that rewards people at grass-roots level for reducing carbon emissions by keeping their forests standing
  • Securing greater protection for karst limestone forest ecosystems in northern Vietnam, which are home to some of the world’s most endangered primates and magnolias

Learn more about our work in this environment