Deforestation explained

Deforestation explained

Here’s everything you need to know about the deforestation crisis taking place across Australia.

Australia's forests and bushland are some of the most remarkable and unique ecosystems on Earth. But Australia is also a deforestation hotspot, alongside places like the Amazon and Borneo.

Every year in Australia, forests are changed forever. Logged, cleared and burnt. Degraded forests take hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years to recover. Deforestation kills tens of millions of native animals—and leaves countless animals without a safe home—pushing entire species, like the koala, to the brink of extinction. And nearly half of Australia’s forest cover has been destroyed in the last 200 years. Learn about the Wilderness Society's plan to protect special forests right across this continent—forests found nowhere else on Earth.

    What exactly is deforestation?

    Deforestation is when humans significantly damage, alter or destroy forest—usually by bulldozing or logging and burning.

    Deforestation is the process of either:
    • Turning a natural forest into agricultural land, for example, a pasture
    • Turning a natural forest into a plantation forest (where all the same type of tree has been planted and will eventually be cut down)
    • Damaging a natural forest so it contains fewer plant and animal species, has a different structure, or functions differently to the original forest as a result.
    Deforestation can take different forms depending on whether it’s for agriculture, mining, forestry, or urban and industrial development.

    Photo: Bulldozed and burnt bushland in Queensland

    What causes deforestation?

    The major causes of deforestation and land clearing in Australia include:

    1. 🐄 Large-scale agriculture to graze livestock or grow cotton

    2. 💎 Mining such as for bauxite

    3. 🪵 Logging for timber, paper and pulp.

    You might have seen this yourself: trees and bushland being destroyed in your local area. This is happening all over the country and what you see is just the tip of the iceberg. The really vast deforestation is usually happening out of sight in regional and rural areas

    How is bushland being cleared?

    🐂 Deforestation for cattle grazing
    Bulldozers drag thick chains through the landscape, snapping trees like matchsticks. When forests are cut down to expand agricultural or mining lands, the wood isn’t used for anything—it’s burned or left to rot. Carbon once stored in trees and soil goes back into the atmosphere. This wastes up to 10% of Australia’s carbon budget.

    🚜 Deforestation for bauxite mining
    For the purposes of bauxite mining, the trees and topsoil are removed by bulldozers and scrapers. A pit is created to access the bauxite. The wood that is cleared to make way for mining is harvested and used for a range of purposes including building, furniture making and industrial products. The remaining vegetation and stumps are burned.

    🪵 Deforestation for pulp, paper and timber
    For decades, and at least until the start of 2024, tall forests are turned into paper, packaging or timber products. The usual method of deforestation for this is industrial clearfell logging, where all trees within a defined area are cut down and the remaining vegetation is burned. The bulk of the trees are pulped.

    Where in Australia is deforestation happening?

    This is a nationwide problem. Queensland has the highest rates of deforestation on the continent. Up to 418,656 ha is being cleared a year, destroying habitat for native animals. New South Wales and Western Australia also have high deforestation rates.

    Deforestation is also a critical problem in southern Australia, notably Lutruwita / Tasmania and Victoria, where high conservation value forests are still under threat, as well as in the Northern Territory where savanna and tropical open forests are disappearing for cotton and fossil fuel gas production.

    Sadly, deforestation is happening across the country and vital native species habitat is being destroyed. It is impossible to measure the exact figures of deforestation Australia-wide because the government doesn’t even collect them. In the parts of Australia where better data exists, like Queensland and New South Wales, the numbers are alarming.

    Photo: Logged trees on the edges of World Heritage listed tropical rainforest near Kuranda, Queensland

    Why is deforestation bad?

    There are many impacts of deforestation on nature and communities. And it’s not just the animals and people that live in and around the forests that are affected.

    🔥 Climate change
    Deforestation is a key contributor to human-caused climate change. Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide and the greenhouse gases humans create. If forests are cut down or burnt, they can no longer do this job—and these gases are released into the atmosphere.

    🐨 Wildlife impacts
    When forests are destroyed, entire ecosystems are disrupted. There’s an immediate decline in biodiversity, and continued, large-scale deforestation is pushing some Australian animals to the brink of extinction.

    🌾 Soil erosion
    Forests and bushland influence rainfall, water and soil quality—and even help prevent floods. Trees help the land to retain water and topsoil. Without forests, the soil erodes and washes away. The barren land is then more likely to flood.

    💛 Cultural impacts
    Many First Peoples have a deep cultural obligation to care for Country. Deforestation often occurs without the consent of First Nations people, and can put significant and sacred sites at risk of damage.

    💧Water quality
    Deforestation affects water quality and quantity. When a forest is cut down, soil can flow into waterways.

    🌾Invasive species
    Deforestation disturbs ecosystems, thus facilitating the presence of invasive species.

    What Australian wildlife is being impacted by deforestation?

    Deforestation affects most of Australia’s threatened species. Some of these include:

    Deforestation is also the greatest threat to koalas in Queensland and New South Wales.

    Plus: deforestation in Queensland is smothering our globally significant Great Barrier Reef—destroying vital habitat for countless marine life—with sediment and chemical run-off.

    Photo: A young, confused koala wanders about in cleared bushland at Pimpana on the Gold Coast, Queensland by Wildcare Australia Inc

    Are the cleared areas replanted with trees?

    Replanting trees is an important action that brings some balance back to our landscapes, but unfortunately Australia is not doing enough of this. As an example, Queensland is attempting to address this as part of its $500 million Land Restoration Fund, advocated for by the Wilderness Society, but it can take decades for trees to become hollow-bearing or for forests to sustain certain species. We need to protect more of what we already have now.

    What is Wilderness Society doing to stop deforestation?

    Koala in tree by Paul Hilton

    Right now, we’re:

    Watch on Nature

    Watch on Nature

    The Wilderness Society’s new web-based app is exposing deforestation across Australia—and will put a stop to the deforestation crisis.

    How can I help stop deforestation?

    When you hear facts about Australia’s deforestation crisis, the scale of devastation happening across the country can be overwhelming. But there are steps you can take, right now, to halt this destruction. And your actions will make a difference.

    Click here to find out five easy steps you can take to help Australia reverse course and end deforestation for good.
    Photo: Healthy, intact bushland