The world’s forests have shrunk by three per cent since 1990 — an area equivalent to the size of South Africa — with India among the countries losing green cover more rapidly, a new study has warned.

The globe’s forests have shrunk despite significant improvements in conservation over the past decade, researchers said.

The UN’s Global Forest Resources Assessment (GFRA) 2015 that released last week showed that while the pace of forest loss has slowed, the damage over the past 25 years has been considerable.

Total forest area has declined by three per cent between 1990 and 2015 from over 10,200 million acres to 9,881 million acres — a loss of 319 million acres.

Significantly, loss of natural forested area was double the global total at six per cent, while tropical forests took the hardest hit with a loss rate of ten per cent, the report said.

Professor Rod Keenan, forestry expert at the University of Melbourne, headed a team of academics analysing the GFRA data for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“These are not good stats. We really need to be increasing forest area across all domains to provide for the forest benefits and services of a growing population. So there is more work to do,” said Keenan.

Agricultural land development, by large and small scale producers, is believed to be the main driver behind the decreases, with Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria recording the biggest losses over the past five years.

While the annual rate of net forest loss in the 1990s stood at 18 million acres, it has since halved to over 8 million acres between 2010 and 2015.

“Halving the loss is a good thing, but we need continued policy focus to ensure the trend can be sustained,” Keenan said.

Keenan said the study showed forest is being more rapidly lost in some of the low-income countries, including India, Vietnam and Ghana.

“In low-income countries with high forest cover, forests are being cleared for direct subsistence by individuals and families and large scale agriculture for broader economic development,” he said.

“Some have policies and regulations to protect forests, but they do not have the capacity and resources to implement them,” said Keenan.