An audit of national parks and nature reserves in South America, Africa and Asia has revealed that these reserves are preventing the release of more than two and a half times as much carbon into the atmosphere as Australia emits each year.

The study by University of Queensland researcher Dr Nathalie Butt and University of Exeter ecologist Dr Dan Bebber is the first to analyse the impact of all protected areas of tropical forest on reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

“These protected areas account for 20 per cent of the world’s tropical forest and play a crucial role in providing habitats for iconic species including tigers, Asiatic lions, jaguars and forest elephants,” Dr Butt said.

“They are also designated to conserve world heritage sites such as the historic Incan ruins of  Machu Picchu in Peru, and to preserve territory for indigenous peoples in South America.”

Dr Butt of UQ’s School of Biological Sciences and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, and Dr Bebber analysed the likely level of tree loss in protected areas - and the resulting carbon emissions from 2000 to 2012, with the research showing that protected areas of forest prevented millions of tonnes of carbon emissions from being lost through logging and deforestation.

“Tropical protected areas are often valued for their role in safeguarding biodiversity,” Dr Butt said.

“Our study highlights the added benefit of maintaining forest cover –to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, - to help slow the rate of climate change.”

The study, published in Scientific Reports, found that deforestation releases nearly twice as much carbon than is absorbed by intact forests, further highlighting the importance of protected areas.

Tropical forests account for around 68 per cent of global forest carbon stocks but globally are under pressure from clearing to produce cash crops such as soya beans in South America, palm oil in South East Asia-and  for agriculture and to produce charcoal for cooking in Africa.

Media contacts: Dr Nathalie Butt n.butt@uq.edu.au, +61 7 336 51697 or Dr Dan Bebber: D.Bebber@exeter.ac.uk

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