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9.4: Habitat Loss’ Impact on Select Ecosystems

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    9.4.1 Tropical forests

    Occupying about 7% of all land surfaces (Figure 9.4.1), tropical forests are estimated to contain over 50% of the world’s terrestrial species (Corlett and Primack, 2010). Due to these high levels of biodiversity, the complexity of biological interactions in tropical forests is unparalleled in other ecosystems, and consequently also their importance to humans. Tropical forests also have regional importance including protecting catchment areas and moderating climate. Lastly, as reservoirs of carbon, tropical forests play a globally important role in mitigating the negative effects of anthropogenic climate change. 4.2 million hectares of humid tropical primary forest were lost in 2020 (Figure 9.4.3). In addition to biodiversity loss, the resulting carbon emissions from this amount of tropical forest loss is equivalent to the annual emissions from 570 million cars (Global Forest Watch).

    tropical-extent-indicator-primary-forest-loss (3).png
    Figure 9.4.1: Distribution of tropical primary forest in 2001
    Figure 9.4.2: Leading countries in tropical primary forest loss 2020
    Global Forest Watch-primary-forest-loss-2020 (1).png
    Figure 9.4.3: Loss of tropical primary forest between 2002 and 2020

    Despite the importance of tropical forests, their destruction has become synonymous with the rapid loss of biodiversity (Figure 9.4.4). Africa had already lost over 65% of its original tropical forests by 1990 (Sayer, 1992); human activities destroyed an additional 308,000 km2 (an area larger than Italy) between 1990 and 2010 (Achard et al., 2014). Losses were particularly severe in Burundi, Benin, and Mozambique, with each country holding less than 5% of its original forest cover (Sayer, 1992). Retaining about half of its original forest cover, the DRC is relatively better off, but current deforestation rates in this country are currently second highest globally (Weisse and Goldman, 2019). Current deforestation rates are so severe in Equatorial Guinea that this country will lose all its forests within the next 20 years if current trends hold (Potapov et al., 2017). Despite these alarming trends—the destruction continues nonstop, particularly in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which saw a 60% and 26% rise in forest loss (the highest rise globally), respectively, between 2017 and 2018 (Weisse and Goldman, 2019). Across Africa, logging is currently the dominant driver of tropical forest loss (causing 77% of total losses over the past decade), followed by agriculture (Potapov et al., 2017).

    Figure 9.4.4 The extent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s tropical forests in 2018, and the extent of tropical forests loss (A) around Liberia and (B) in the north-eastern part of the Congo Basin between 2000 and 2018. Note in (A) how deforestation follows country borders, and in (B) how deforestation follows road networks. Source: Hansen et al., 2013. Map by Johnny Wilson, CC BY 4.0.

    9.4.2 Rivers and deltas

    Due to our dependence on freshwater, humans have always preferred to live near rivers, streams, and lakes. Consequently, these aquatic environments have been destroyed at a scale at least equal to that of terrestrial environments. Rivers have taken a particularly hard hit from human activities, being polluted by industries and dammed to ensure a reliable, year-round supply of water for consumption and irrigation, and to generate hydroelectricity.

    Dam construction holds several negative consequences for biodiversity and people. Aquatic organisms that cannot survive the altered river conditions downstream (reduced flow and dissolved oxygen, higher temperatures, and increased turbidity) are most vulnerable. Lastly, dams reduce connectivity in freshwater ecosystems, preventing freshwater organisms from exchanging genetic material, migrating between upsteam and downstream areas, and adapting to changing conditions.

    Terrestrial ecosystems also suffer from dam construction. Of concern is the direct loss of riverine and palustrine ecosystems downstream from the dam due to reduced waterflow. Dams may cause the drying of large wetlands and floodplains downstream, displacing people who depend on the river’s now-compromised seasonal flood cycles (Drijver and Marchand, 1985). Flooding of upland areas next to dammed rivers also displaces terrestrial wildlife and people. For example, construction of Mali’s Manalati Dam flooded 430 km2 of savannah and 120 km2 of forest, which fractured the migration routes of the region’s nomadic pastoralists, leading to overgrazing and soil erosion of the remaining grazing lands (deGeorges and Reilly, 2006), in addition to a 90% loss of fisheries downstream (Acreman, 1996).

    9.4.3 Wetlands

    Wetlands are being mined for valuable peat, or drained and/or filled in for development and agriculture. This is a major concern because wetlands serve as spawning grounds and nurseries for aquatic and amphibious wildlife and stop-over sites for migratory birds (Box 9.4.1). Wetlands also provide multiple important ecosystem services. For example, they prevent erosion and runoff by capturing large volumes of floodwater, which is then released slowly over time. This process also allows sediments and nutrients kicked up during flood events to settle out, creating fertile habitats for a wide diversity of animals and plants, as well as for agriculture. Water that leaves after this settling period is cleaner than when it entered, having been filtered by the soil, plants, and microbes of wetlands. This water purification and filtration service is generally cheaper and much more efficient than man-made filtration systems. The loss of any wetlands, but especially at such large scales, is thus a grave concern not only because of the countless animals and plants threatened with extinction, but also the people that depend on all the valuable ecosystem services they offer.

    Box 9.4.1 Migratory Birds of Africa: The Largest of the Last Great Migrations?

    Abraham J. Miller-Rushing and John W. Wilson

    Acadia National Park, US National Park Service, Bar Harbor, ME, USA.

    How are Africa’s bird migrations, the biggest in the world, faring in a rapidly changing world? Each year, about 2.1–5 billion birds (mostly songbirds, but also raptors, waterbirds, and many others) travel back and forth between their wintering grounds in Africa and breeding grounds in Europe and Asia (Figure 9.4.3). Of the 126 species involved in this migration, over 40% have continuously decreased in abundance since 1970 (Vickery et al., 2014). At first, populations that overwintered in open dry savannahs declined: examples include the Ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana, LC) and European turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur, VU) which decreased by 84% and 69% between 1980 and 2009, respectively. More recently, species overwintering in the humid Afrotropics also started declining: this includes songbirds, such as the common nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos, LC) and river warbler (Locustella fluviatilis, LC)—populations of both declined by 63%—and waterbirds such as the black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa, NT), which declined by 45%.

    To survive their long journeys, migratory birds need favorable weather conditions, adequate food sources, and intact habitat not only at the end points where they breed or overwinter, but also along their routes where the migratory animals can rest and refuel (Runge et al., 2015). Disturbances in any of these places can lead to sharp population declines. For example, recent research showed that the habitat quality of a single stop-over site can determine whether a migration is successful or not (Gómez et al., 2017). Illustrating this point, a drought in the Sahel, an important migratory stop-over site, led to food shortages that killed 77% of the world’s common whitethroats (Sylvia communis, LC); even today, this population has not yet fully recovered (Vickery et al., 2014).

    Human activities have greatly contributed to the declines of Africa’s migratory birds (Kirby et al., 2008; Vickery et al., 2014). For example, each year thousands of hectares of wetlands, forests, grasslands, and savannahs are being converted into farmlands and urban areas or polluted by rampant use of pesticides and herbicides. Migratory birds also need to deal with hunters and trappers, and an increasing number of human-made structures, such as high-rise buildings, wind turbines, and power lines that represent collision and electrocution hazards (e.g. Rushworth et al., 2014). Then there is the threat of inconsistent rainfall, which causes food shortages and direct mortality, and climate change, which causes temporal mismatches between migratory movements and abundance of key food resources (Both et al., 2006; Vickery et al., 2014).

    Figure 9.4.5 The three major migratory flyways that African birds use to travel back and forth between their wintering grounds in Africa and breeding grounds in Europe and Asia each year. After BirdLife International, 2019, CC BY 4.0.

    Mangrove swamps (sometimes called mangrove forests, though technically a wetland because their function and structure are primarily determined by hydrology, Lewis, 2005; Gopal, 2013) are one of Earth's most threatened wetland ecosystems. Characterized by woody plants that can tolerate saltwater, mangrove swamps occupy brackish waters in tropical coastal areas, typically where there are muddy bottoms. These areas are sparsely distributed; globally, mangrove swamps cover only 53,000 km2 of land scattered across 118 countries (Dybas, 2015). In addition to holding many unique species, mangrove swamps also protect coastal cities and villages from cyclone/hurricane and tsunami damage and provide important breeding and feeding grounds for marine shellfish and fish. One study estimated that mangrove swamps provide an estimated US $57,000 worth of ecosystem services per hectare (van Bochove et al., 2014). A large percentage of mangrove swamps have been destroyed or damaged by agriculture, urban expansion, pollution, and commercial shellfish farming (Giri et al., 2011). With so much destruction, it should come as little surprise that about 40% of vertebrate species endemic to mangrove swamps are currently threatened with extinction (Luther and Greenberg, 2009).

    9.4.4 Seasonal drylands

    Semi-arid savannahs, scrublands, and grasslands are being lost through conversion to agriculture and desertification—the systematic degradation of formerly complex and adaptive seasonal drylands into barren wastelands (Figure 9.4.6). When human populations were low, nomadic pastoralism and shifting cultivation enabled people to utilize seasonal drylands in a sustainable way. Today however, population growth, combined with restrictions placed on free movement by administrative borders and competition for land, forces people and animals living on drylands to be more sedentary. While these areas may initially support some agriculture and livestock, unsustainable techniques, such as overgrazing and excessive tilling, lead to soil erosion and the depletion of soil nutrients and natural seed banks. With the cover vegetation gone, the unprotected topsoil is easily lost to wind and flooding, leaving behind the deeper, infertile, and compact subsoil layers with little capacity to hold water. The result is something that closely resembles a man-made desert. However, rather than a functional ecosystem characterized by species adapted to life in the desert, these wastelands have lost their original productivity and biological communities, only to be revived through expensive and/or time-consuming land reclamation methods.

    Figure 9.4.6 Desertification, the degradation of formerly complex and adaptive seasonal drylands into barren wastelands, is a growing threat to Africa’s natural environment, its wildlife, and its people. It is a prominent problem in the Sahel region, such as the area pictured, in Burkina Faso. Photograph by Jose Navarro,, CC BY 4.0.

    This page titled 9.4: Habitat Loss’ Impact on Select Ecosystems is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.