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April 21, 2018  |  Login

Threats to Tropical Forests


The area bounded by the Tropic of Cancer (23.5oN) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5oS) is known as “the tropics”. Tropical rainforest, mainly comprised of evergreen trees, thrives in areas of high rainfall. Deciduous trees, which shed their leaves in the dry season, tend to grow in areas where there is a seasonal drought. In dry areas that are prone to fire, and where soils are particularly poor, trees grow sparsely, forming “woody savanna”.

Tropical forests bind the soil, helping to prevent erosion and retain the few nutrients present. They also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, exchanging it for oxygen. Tropical forests cover only 6 percent of the Earth's land area but probably contain over half the world's species, most of which have yet to be identified. Fire, often caused by lightning, is part of the natural cycle of regeneration in tropical forests.

Fire destroys the forest canopy, enabling light to reach the ground, and saplings and herbs to grow. In most cases, however, forest fires are caused by humans. In some cases they are deliberately lit in order to clear forests for agriculture. In others, they are started inadvertently, perhaps by discarded cigarettes or sparks from machinery.


Clearing by slashing and burning techniques, and more recently by machines, may completely destroy the remaining major areas of tropical forests. Most of the tropical forests are in poor countries whose priorities are to clear land for agriculture. Attempts by wealthier countries to encourage development often lead to tropical forests being exploited for timber.

Once the forest is gone, the land is prone to erosion and flooding. Nutrients in the soil are rapidly leached and after a few years farming and ranching become untenable. Where the original forest cover is substantial, as in the Amazon, it has a major influence on climate. Loss of trees reduces local rainfall and may even disrupt the global climate. Sustainable exploitation of tropical forests, including selective logging and harvesting of products such as fruit and rubber, can provide a higher long-term income than more destructive practices.

Mackay, Richard (2009) The Atlas of Endangered Species © Myriad Editions. Available from:

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