Ghost roads and the destruction of Asia-Pacific tropical forests

Jayden E. Engert, Mason J. Campbell, Joshua E. Cinner, Yoko Ishida, Sean Sloan, Jatna Supriatna, Mohammed Alamgir, Jaime Cislowski, William F. Laurance

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Roads are expanding at the fastest pace in human history. This is the case especially in biodiversity-rich tropical nations, where roads can result in forest loss and fragmentation, wildfires, illicit land invasions and negative societal effects1–5. Many roads are being constructed illegally or informally and do not appear on any existing road map6–10; the toll of such ‘ghost roads’ on ecosystems is poorly understood. Here we use around 7,000 h of effort by trained volunteers to map ghost roads across the tropical Asia-Pacific region, sampling 1.42 million plots, each 1 km2 in area. Our intensive sampling revealed a total of 1.37 million km of roads in our plots—from 3.0 to 6.6 times more roads than were found in leading datasets of roads globally. Across our study area, road building almost always preceded local forest loss, and road density was by far the strongest correlate11 of deforestation out of 38 potential biophysical and socioeconomic covariates. The relationship between road density and forest loss was nonlinear, with deforestation peaking soon after roads penetrate a landscape and then declining as roads multiply and remaining accessible forests largely disappear. Notably, after controlling for lower road density inside protected areas, we found that protected areas had only modest additional effects on preventing forest loss, implying that their most vital conservation function is limiting roads and road-related environmental disruption. Collectively, our findings suggest that burgeoning, poorly studied ghost roads are among the gravest of all direct threats to tropical forests.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)370-375
Number of pages6
Issue number8011
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2024


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