Globally, around 13 million hectares of forests were converted to other uses " including agriculture " or were lost through natural causes each year between 2000 and 2010, according to the findings of FAO"s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010. The trend of forest loss has declined from around 16 million ha per year during the 1990s, the report said.
The report, the most comprehensive assessment of the state of the world"s forests ever undertaken, was released today at the start of the latest biennial meeting of the FAO"s Committee on Forestry and World Forest Week, in Rome.
More than one third of all forests are classified as primary " showing no visible signs of human intervention. Primary forests, in particular tropical moist forests, include some of the world's most species-rich and diverse ecosystems.
Primary forests account for 36 per cent (1.4 billion hectares) of the world"s forest area but their area has decreased by more than 40 million hectares " at a rate of 0.4 per cent annually " over the past 10 years.
That figure does not necessarily mean that the primary forests have disappeared. In many cases, they were reclassified because selective logging or other human interventions were carried out during the reporting period, FAO said.
The agency emphasized that forests where humans have intervened can still hold important biodiversity values, contribute significantly to environmental protection, and sustain livelihoods, provided they are well managed.
South America accounted for the largest proportion of the loss in primary forests, followed by Africa and Asia.
Other threats to forest biodiversity include unsustainable forest management, climate change, forest fires, insect pests and diseases, natural disasters and invasive species " all of which are causing severe damage in some countries.
At the same time, the forest area designated for the conservation of biological diversity has increased by more than 95 million hectares since 1990, according to the report. The largest portion (46 per cent) was designated between 2000 and 2005. Currently, 12 per cent of the world"s forests or more than 460 million hectares are designated primarily to conserve biological diversity.
Legally established protected areas, such as national parks, game reserves and wilderness areas, now cover more than 10 per cent of the total forest area in most countries and regions. The primary function of these forests may be the conservation of biological diversity, the protection of soil and water resources, or the conservation of cultural heritage.
"The world"s forests represent a vital source of forest biological diversity. This biodiversity is an important treasure, especially as forests will not just have to adapt to climate change but are also expected to help mitigate it," said FAO Assistant Director-General, Eduardo Rojas. "Greater investments in sustainable forest management are urgently required to better conserve and manage forest biodiversity," he added.
There is an accelerating trend among countries to integrate biodiversity conservation into forest management planning and practices, FAO noted in the report, adding that there is a clear need for action to improve the effective conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in production forests, particularly in forest concessions.
The report also warns that commercial hunting driven by consumer demand in cities will probably drive many wildlife species to extinction in the near future unless effective measures are implemented soon, including law enforcement, community participation, provision of alternative protein and the establishment of simple and practical wildlife monitoring systems.