Plans in the pipeline for the forthcoming UN climate conference in Copenhagen to cut deforestation in developing countries, scientists fear, could save some species from extinction but inadvertently increase the risk to others.
A team of eleven of the world's top tropical forest scientists, coordinated by the University of Leeds, UK, warn that while cutting clearance of carbon-rich tropical forests will help reduce climate change and save species in those forests, governments could risk neglecting other forests that are home to large numbers of endangered species.
Under new UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) proposals, the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) scheme would curb carbon emissions by financially rewarding tropical countries that reduce deforestation.
Governments implicitly assume that this is a win-win scheme, benefiting climate and species.
Tropical forests contain half of all species and half of all carbon stored in terrestrial vegetation, and their destruction accounts for 18 percent of global carbon emissions.
However, scientists warn that if REDD focuses solely on protecting forests with the greatest density of carbon, some biodiversity may be sacrificed.
"Concentrations of carbon density and biodiversity in tropical forests only partially overlap," said Dr Alan Grainger of the University of Leeds, joint leader of the international team.
"We are concerned that governments will focus on cutting deforestation in the most carbon-rich forests, only for clearance pressures to shift to other high biodiversity forests which are not given priority for protection because they are low in carbon," he added.
"If personnel and funds are switched from existing conservation areas, they too could be at risk, and this would make matters even worse," he further added.
If REDD is linked to carbon markets then biodiversity hotspot areas - home to endemic species most at risk of extinction as their habitats are shrinking rapidly - could be at an additional disadvantage, because of the higher costs of protecting them.
According to early estimates up to 50 percent of tropical biodiversity hotspot areas could be excluded from REDD for these reasons.
Fortunately, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is still negotiating the design of REDD and how it is to be implemented.