Five Southeast Asian countries have lost nearly one-third of their forests in the last 35 years and could be left with less than a fifth of their original cover by 2030 - with devastating effects on wildlife and humans, a new report suggests.
Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam have lost nearly 40 million hectares of forest cover since 1980 but have retained about 98 million hectares of natural forest, just over half of the region's land area.
Using satellite data, the WWF researchers calculated that since 1980, Cambodia has lost 22 per cent of its 1973 forest cover, Laos and Myanmar each lost 24 per cent, and Thailand and Vietnam lost 43 per cent.
The report on ecosystems in the greater Mekong River area warns that these countries risk losing more than one-third of their remaining forest cover within the next two decades if they fail to increase protection.
"The greater Mekong is at a crossroads," said Peter Cutter, landscape conservation manager with WWF-Greater Mekong. "One path leads to further declines in biodiversity and livelihoods, but if natural resources are managed responsibly, this region can pursue a course that will secure a healthy and prosperous future for its people."
The report documents alarming fragmentation of the region's forests in the past 30 years. Large connected areas of "core" forest - defined as areas of at least 3.2 square kilometres of uninterrupted forest - have declined from more than 70 per cent in 1973 to about 20 per cent in 2009.
If current trends continue, WWF predicts that by 2030 only 14 per cent of the greater Mekong's forest will consist of contiguous habitat capable of sustaining populations of many wildlife species including the tiger, Asian elephant, Irrawaddy dolphin and the endemic saola - also known as the Asian unicorn.
The survival of many species, the report says, depends on the existence of well-managed protected area systems, and while the number of these areas have expanded dramatically, "many protected areas exist in name only", Cutter said.
"Even relatively secure protected areas are under intense pressure from poaching and timber theft, while others have been reduced in size by governments eager to cash in on land concessions to mining companies or plantation owners."