Understanding forest fragmentation
Forest fragmentation is when areas of continuous forest coverage are gradually broken down into isolated patches due to a multitude of natural and human-caused factors. Fires and lava flows have historically been the primary cause of forest fragmentation, but they pale in comparison to the devastating rate at which it has occurred during modern civilization. Repurposing of land for agriculture, building road and rail infrastructure, and the logging industry are some of the most significant contributors to this destructive trend.
What are the effects of forest fragmentation?
Perhaps the most obvious effect of forest fragmentation is simply the reduction of habitable areas of forests, which is, of course, an issue for the flora and fauna which live there. But beyond simply deforestation, fragmentation brings about myriad other negative side effects.
The reduction in cover leads to greater exposure to sunlight for the edges of the remaining patches of forest, where native species can be affected by the increased UV exposure and higher temperatures. In addition, the reduced cover results in greater wind exposure and a decline in humidity levels, which are threats to the life of vulnerable species. This also increases the susceptibility of forest fires which spread more easily across the windier and drier terrain. Data reveal that 70% of the remaining global forest cover is within 1km of the forest border due to fragmentation.
Many species rely on continuous forest coverage to manoeuver and become isolated when faced with areas of exposed territory. This affects their ability to find mates, food, shelter, and over time will lead to reduced genetic diversity and greater susceptibility to diseases. Other species are forced to move between forested areas, and this exposes both them and humans to risks of interaction. Many animals will be killed in accidents with vehicles or by farmers wanting to protect their crops and livestock. Predators such as tigers and larger mammals such as elephants with a tendency to roam large areas often come into conflict with populations of humans in their search for food and shelter.
Further repercussions of forest fragmentation are the increased risk of invasive species and pathogens and biodiversity loss, affecting entire ecosystems.
What can we do to combat forest fragmentation?
There are two elements to consider in the fight against forest fragmentation. First, there are tactics to mitigate the harmful effects of the destruction caused to date, and there is the effort required to prevent further deforestation and to reforest lost habitats.
One tactic is to establish ‘wildlife corridors’. These are routes between segregated areas of forest in the form of bridges or tunnels specifically designed for the wildlife to traverse man-made obstacles such as roads. When the fragmentation occurs without any infrastructural barriers, it is possible to reestablish forest corridors through seeding programs, replanting trees and plants to provide safe passage between patches of forest. Unfortunately, creating wildlife corridors requires money, which the governments often do not provide in the less financially developed areas of the world suffering from deforestation. There are, however, incredible non-profit organizations that dedicate themselves to protecting wildlife through the creation of wildlife corridors.
Ensuring you’re not contributing unnecessarily to the problem is the first step towards solving the problem. For example, checking that wooden or paper products you buy are from sustainably grown sources and checking for Rainforest Alliance Certified labels on groceries while avoiding ingredients such as palm oil will all make a difference. You can also support scientific research and local environmental education initiatives to allow politicians to better understand the importance of stopping deforestation and thereby influencing future governmental policy.