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New approach to predict deforestation risk can help conserve forests

Posted date: May 25, 2017

Unique research collaboration has resulted in novel approach to predicting deforestation risk in Borneo

A new research collaboration has drawn attention to the risks of deforestation, providing conservationists’ with the tools to predict and plan for future forest loss.
 
Conducted by scientists from the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Oxford and the University of Montana, the newly released study, published in Landscape Ecology, highlights novel approaches to tackling deforestation. The team focused their research on Borneo, an island that has lost a staggering 30 percent of its forest since the 1970s and is among the most biodiverse and threatened on the planet. The loss of Bornean forests threatens species such as the orangutan, Sumatran rhino, and the Sunda clouded leopard; as well as emitting significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Deforestation is one of the biggest threats to Sunda clouded leopard. Photo Credit: Andrew Hearn, WildCRU, as part of study of clouded leopard ecology in Malaysian Borneo.
Deforestation is one of the biggest threats to Sunda clouded leopard. Photo Credit: Andrew Hearn, WildCRU, as part of study of clouded leopard ecology in Malaysian Borneo.
 
Despite its focus on Borneo, the study findings are useful to all forest conservationists, and could help tropical forests around the world.
 
The study took an innovative approach to conducting their data analysis, using existing maps of the area and the machine learning algorithm ‘Random Forests’, the team built a multi-scale model of  deforestation on the island from 2000- 2010.  
 
After calculating the historic links between landscape variables and deforestation, the team used this information to predict the future deforestation risk facing Borneo’s remaining forests. The goal of this study was to provide national authorities with a tool that would support them to recognize potential deforestation threats in the future.
 
The deforestation risk factors varied from nation to nation within the island. In Brunei, deforestation was associated with a highly patchy landscape with multiple land uses within a 10km radius and a large amount of forest edge. 

Map from the study showing the predicted risk of deforestation across Borneo’s remaining forests.  Red areas represent areas of highest risk.
Map from the study showing the predicted risk of deforestation across Borneo’s remaining forests. Red areas represent areas of highest risk.

By contrast, in the Malaysian provinces of Borneo, deforestation was associated with a high proportion of lowland mosaic landscape types within 20km and high proportions of existing plantations within 30km, this led to a diffuse pattern of risk across Malaysian forests. And finally, in the Indonesian provinces of Borneo, deforestation was associated with areas of low elevation and a highly patchy landscape, leading to strong frontiers of deforestation risk.
 
The research findings strongly suggest that this novel approach offers a powerful method for analyzing land use change. In addition, it highlights the immense and imminent deforestation risk to Borneo’s forest biodiversity, with clear spatial patterns of risk related to topography and landscape structure that differ between the three nations that comprise Borneo.
 
Samuel Cushman, joint first author, who is the Director of the Center for Landscape Science and a Research Landscape Ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station said: “It is well accepted that ecological processes interact across a range of scales both in time and space; despite this, very few studies have explicitly accounted for scale dependence in predictive modelling. This analysis highlights the power of multi scale approaches to land cover change modelling and we hope it will encourage other researchers to adopt this approach.”
 
Ewan Macdonald, joint first author and a researcher in Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) said: "Our results provide the best insight to date of where the highest risks lie to Borneo’s remaining forests. I hope this will help governments and conservation planners to develop effective strategies to combat these risks and to conserve these beautiful forests for future generations.If we understand where risks lurk, we can plan action to counteract them. And these risks are real and imminent for many species, such as the beautiful and enigmatic Sunda clouded leopard, which are threatened by Borneo’s forest loss. I hope our understanding of the patterns of deforestation risk will provide a vital tool in developing effective conservation strategies.”
 
Professor David Macdonald, Director of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit said: "Borneo’s majestic forests and glorious wildlife are beacons to the world and what’s so exciting about this study is that the intelligence gained from studying patterns in Borneo, sheds a light to illuminate a way of helping tropical forests around the world. The innovation lies in a methodology that can be rolled out far beyond Borneo."
 
The study is described in the paper “Multiple-scale prediction of forest loss risk across Borneo” published in the journal Landscape Ecology. 

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The mission of the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender. 
 
About WildCRU - University of Oxford
David Macdonald founded the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) in 1986 at the University of Oxford. Now the foremost University-based centre for biodiversity conservation, the mission of the WildCRU is to achieve practical solutions to conservation problems through original research. WildCRU is renowned for its specialisation in wild carnivores, especially wild cats, for its long-running studies on lion and clouded leopard, and for its training centre, where early-career conservationists, so far from 32 countries, are trained by experts to become leaders in conservation, resulting in a global community of highly skilled and collaborative conservationists. 
 
About The Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division - University of Oxford
The Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division (MPLS) is one of four academic divisions at the University of Oxford, representing the non-medical sciences. Oxford is one of the world’s leading universities for science, and MPLS is at the forefront of scientific research across a wide range of disciplines. Research in the mathematical, physical and life sciences at Oxford was rated the best in the UK in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment. 
 

The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) is one of seven units within the U.S. Forest Service Research and Development. RMRS maintains 14 field laboratories throughout a 12-state territory encompassing parts of the Great Basin, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains. RMRS also administers and conducts research on 14 experimental forests, ranges and watersheds and maintains long-term research databases for these areas. While anchored in the geography of the West our research is global in scale. To find out more about the RMRS go to www.fs.fed.us/rmrs. You can also follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/usfs_rmrs.

 

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