Stitching Together Forests Can Help Save Species, Study Finds

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“We’ve known for a while that fragmentation elevates extinction rates and that these corridors can help,” said Clinton Jenkins, an ecologist at the Institute for Ecological Research in Brazil and a co-author of the study. “But we wanted to take that data and figure out what we’d actually gain by putting these forests back together.”

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Golden Lion Tamarin, Leontopithecus rosalia, endangered species, Atlantic Forest, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

Credit
Kike Calvo, via Associated Press

In the stretch of Atlantic Forest north of Rio de Janeiro, home to the endangered golden lion tamarin, a bright orange primate, the researchers identified 20 areas where corridors could be planted — small forests just six-tenths of a mile wide — to reconnect existing habitats. Doing so, they found, would create more than 500,000 acres of continuous forest and slow the predicted rate of extinctions.

On average, the populations in the connected forests were expected to survive 13 times as long as they would in isolated forest fragments.

While the paper largely depended on modeling, this work isn’t entirely hypothetical. One of the co-authors, Stuart L. Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University, has been working since 2005 to build actual wildlife corridors linking scattered patches of Atlantic Forest through his nonprofit, Saving Species.

Although the newly built corridors need to be studied in more detail, Dr. Pimm said, early signs are encouraging.

“We’re already observing golden lion tamarins passing through, which means they’re less likely to be isolated, they can meet tamarins elsewhere, and local populations are less likely to wink out,” he said.

The authors make the case that such corridors would be relatively cheap, costing an estimated $21 million to $49 million to reconnect fragmented forests in Brazil and Tanzania.

Such corridors, they note, may also help plant and animal species adapt to climate change by making it easier for them to migrate to cooler habitats and higher elevations as temperatures rise.

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The golden lion tamarin has been observed passing through some of these corridors, an encouraging early sign for researchers.

Credit
Kike Calvo, via Associated Press

“The idea we wanted to get across is that reconnecting these landscapes doesn’t cost all that much if you’re smart about it,” Dr. Jenkins said. “You don’t have to bring back the forest everywhere to create a lot of positive benefits.”

Daniel Simberloff, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who was not involved in the study, cautioned that the research relied heavily on debatable modeling assumptions. Because threatened species decline over many decades, it is difficult to assess the full benefits of corridors directly.

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The Amazon rainforest in the Jamanxim National Forest which has been illegally slashed and burned stands next to a section of virgin forest in Novo Progresso, state of Para, Brazil.

Credit
Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times

It can take several decades for replanted corridors to blossom into lush forests that birds feel comfortable traveling through, the authors noted. Given that many species are predicted to disappear from their fragments in less than a decade, even a well-designed corridor may prove too little, too late for some.

More broadly, Dr. Simberloff argued that overhyping the benefits of corridors may mislead people into thinking “we can make a meaningful contribution to conservation on the cheap,” when larger-scale efforts to protect and rebuild forests may ultimately prove necessary to save their native species.

But Nick Haddad, a conservation biologist at North Carolina State University who has studied wildlife corridors extensively but was not involved in the study, argued that corridors can slow extinctions in the short term while larger efforts get underway.

“This paper offers good evidence that you can get a lot of bang for the buck with corridors,” he said.

Still, building wildlife corridors is not always easy, Dr. Jenkins said. It often requires buying farmland and painstakingly regrowing forests, keeping out invasive grasses and preventing fires. In some areas, conservationists may need to build large forested bridges over highways to allow species to pass through.

“You can’t just go in and plant trees and walk away,” Dr. Jenkins said. “The key to making these corridors work is often to make sure local people are involved and committed to taking care of them.”

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