A contemporary assessment of change in humid tropical forests

Gregory P. Asner, Thomas K. Rudel, T. Mitchell Aide, Ruth Defries, Ruth Emerson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

348 Scopus citations


In recent decades the rate and geographic extent of land-use and land-cover change has increased throughout the world's humid tropical forests. The pan-tropical geography of forest change is a challenge to assess, and improved estimates of the human footprint in the tropics are critical to understanding potential changes in biodiversity. We combined recently published and new satellite observations, along with images from Google Earth and a literature review, to estimate the contemporary global extent of deforestation, selective logging, and secondary regrowth in humid tropical forests. Roughly 1.4% of the biome was deforested between 2000 and 2005. As of 2005, about half of the humid tropical forest biome contained 50% or less tree cover. Although not directly comparable to deforestation, geographic estimates of selective logging indicate that at least 20% of the humid tropical forest biome was undergoing some level of timber harvesting between 2000 and 2005. Forest recovery estimates are even less certain, but a compilation of available reports suggests that at least 1.2% of the humid tropical forest biome was in some stage of long-term secondary regrowth in 2000. Nearly 70% of the regrowth reports indicate forest regeneration in hilly, upland, and mountainous environments considered marginal for large-scale agriculture and ranching. Our estimates of the human footprint are conservative because they do not resolve very small-scale deforestation, low-intensity logging, and unreported secondary regrowth, nor do they incorporate other impacts on tropical forest ecosystems, such as fire and hunting. Our results highlight the enormous geographic extent of forest change throughout the humid tropics and the considerable limitations of the science and technology available for such a synthesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1386-1395
Number of pages10
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Deforestation
  • Forest degradation
  • Forest disturbance
  • Forest regrowth
  • Secondary forest
  • Selective logging
  • Timber harvesting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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