Brazil’s Atlantic forest in trouble

The Atlantic rain forest in Brazil - a biodiversity hotspot - has been reduced to about one-tenth of its original area in the past 500 years, according to a study cited by New Scientist. Unless the damage is halted, monkeys and birds unique to the region will become extinct, say scientists from the University of São Paulo.

Covering about 1.5 million square kilometres, the Atlantic forest supports more than 20,000 species of plants, 260 of mammals, 700 of birds, 200 of reptiles, 280 of amphibians and hundreds of as-yet-unnamed species. Its plight has been obscured by the ongoing degradation of the larger Amazon rain forest, scientists say.

“Unfortunately, the forest is in very bad shape,” said scientist Jean Paul Metzger. “Species extinctions will occur more rapidly and, since 30% of the species are endemic to the region, they will disappear forever.”

Metzger’s colleague Milton Cezar Ribeiro mapped the entire region using satellite images and vegetation maps. He found that about 80% of the remaining forest is split into fragments of less than 0.5 square kilometres. The average distance between the fragments is 1.4 kilometres, making it difficult for animals to move from one part of the forest to another. Additionally, only about 14% of the remaining forest is protected – because 70% of Brazil’s population lives in what was once the Atlantic forest. That area includes the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Priorities now include protecting the largest remaining tracts of forest, along the coastal mountains near São Paulo, and reconnecting the fragments to create larger areas to assist animal movements. Endangered primate species such as the golden lion tamarin and the northern woolly spider monkey inhabit the forest.

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