Aug. 10 (UPI) -- An analysis of the planet's healthiest, most-intact tropical forests suggests an overwhelming majority remain vulnerable to deforestation.
According to the new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, just 6.5 percent of the "best of the last" tropical forests enjoy formal protections.
For the study, an international team of researchers, including scientists with NASA and the United Nations, used high-resolution satellite images to map the presence of high-quality forests across the tropics. Researchers focused on finding the most intact forests, and those with the high ecological value, not necessarily the largest.
"Every year, research reveals new ways that old, structurally complex forests contribute to biodiversity, carbon storage, water resources, and many other ecosystem services," study author Patrick Jantz said in a news release.
"That we can now map such forests in great detail is an important step forward in efforts to conserve them," said Jantz, a research professor at Northern Arizona University.
When researchers compared maps of currently protected tropical forests with their maps of intact, high quality forests, they found very little overlap. Historically, protection efforts have favored quantity over quality, according to the authors of the new paper.
The study determined just half of the Earth's humid tropical forests boast high ecological integrity, the majority of which are located within the the Amazon and Congo basins.
Researchers also looked at deforestation rates and the human pressures currently threatening the tropic's healthiest forests. Their findings suggest the best of the last tropical forests are exceedingly vulnerable.
Scientists say they hope their findings will help policy makers and forest managers better prioritize forest protection and restoration efforts. Of the 4.6 million acres of the humid tropical forests found around the globe, the authors of the new study suggest 41 percent be granted new protections.
The researchers suggest forest managers work reduce human pressures across another 19 percent. The study calls also calls for active restoration efforts in 7 percent of tropical forests.