Human disturbance over the past 500 years has halved mammal populations in South America’s threatened Atlantic Forest, say experts.
The rainforest runs along the Atlantic coast of Brazil and once covered more than a million square miles.
Today it is a “pale shadow” of its former majestic glory, according to scientists.
Human activities such as farming and logging have reduced the forest to around 143,000 square miles and wiped out hundreds of species, it is claimed.
New research published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE reveals the dramatic impact humans have had on the region since it was first colonised in the 1500s.
Scientists found that more than half of the local species assemblages – sets of co-existing species – of medium and large mammals had disappeared.
Among the hardest hit species were the largest, including jaguars, pumas and tapirs.
The team looked at recorded information from surveys of the Atlantic Forest dating back 500 years.
Professor Carlos Peres, from the University of East Anglia, who co-led the study, said: “Our results highlight the urgent need for action in protecting these fragile ecosystems.
“In particular, we need to carry out more comprehensive regional scale studies to understand the local patterns and drivers of species loss.
“Efforts to protect the Atlantic Forest and other tropical forest ecosystems often rests on uncooperative political will and robust public policies, so we need compelling data to drive change.”
Brazilian colleague Dr Juliano Bogoni, from the University of Sao Paulo, said: “The mammalian diversity of the once majestic Atlantic Forest has been largely reduced to a pale shadow of its former self.
“These habitats are now often severely incomplete, restricted to insufficiently large forest remnants, and trapped in an open-ended extinction vortex.
“This collapse is unprecedented in both history and pre-history and can be directly attributed to human activity.”