Cryptic Loss of India's Native Forests

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Science  02 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5987, pp. 32
DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5987.32-b

India sustains some of the world's most imperiled forests, which encompass parts of three recognized biodiversity hotspots (1). How are these crucial forests faring? In 2009, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) announced ostensibly good news: Indian forests had expanded by nearly 5% over the preceding decade (2). Unfortunately, as scientists who have long studied Asian forests, we believe that this view is misleading.

First, local studies reveal that native Indian forests, such as those in the Western Ghats (3), Eastern Ghats (4), and Himalayas (5), have declined rapidly in recent decades. Second, in its automated analyses of satellite imagery, the FSI lumps together all forest types. Native forests are pooled with exotic tree plantations, such as eucalyptus, acacia, rubber, teak, or pine trees, which have very limited value for endangered biodiversity (6). Since the early 1990s, plantations in India have expanded rapidly, at a reported mean rate of ∼5700 km2 (7) to ∼18,000 km2 (8) per year, with the higher value being more credible. If one subtracts plantations from total forest cover (2), then India's native forests have actually declined at an alarming pace, from 0.8% to 3.5% per year. The biggest driver of this decline is forest cutting for fuel wood, with an estimated 94.6 million metric tons of fuel wood being consumed annually (9).

The cryptic destruction of India's native forests highlights a key challenge for those attempting to understand current trends in forest ecosystems. Data from satellites are increasingly used to monitor changes in net forest cover [e.g., (2, 7)], but such estimates typically lump together native, exotic, and degraded vegetation. A failure to discern such changes could paint a highly misleading picture of the fate of the world's native forests.

References and Notes

  1. FAO, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005 (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, 2006). FAO estimates that Indian plantations expanded from 131,700 km2 in 1990 to 217,300 km2 in 2005.
  2. ITTO, Encouraging Industrial Forest Plantations in the Tropics (International Tropical Timber Organization, Yokohama, Japan, 2009). According to ITTO, Indian plantations expanded from 146,000 km2 in 1995 to 326,000 km2 in 2005.

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