Using NASA satellite data and Google Earth, a Purdue University researcher has found evidence that North Korea is logging in the Mount Paekdu Biosphere Reserve, a 326,000-acre forest designated by the United Nations as a protected forest preserve. Mount Paekdu - together with an adjacent biosphere in China - has the world's highest plant biodiversity in a cool, temperate zone and is the habitat for many wildlife species, including the endangered Siberian tiger.

Since many researchers are unable to visit North Korea, the research was conducted using remote sensing data. Results were published in Biological Conservation.

Guofan Shao, professor of geo-eco-informatics, and his collaborators observed through NASA satellite data that there were some changes occuring in North Korean forest preserve. NASA images didn't have the resolution needed to pinpoint what those changes were or how they were occurring, so researchers used Google Earth, which has a clear resolution down to 1 meter.

"Particularly in the core area, there should be no human activity - no deforestation," Shao said. "But when you look at the data with Google Earth, you can see the forest is no longer intact."

Google Earth images show that extensive logging has taken place in the North Korean biosphere. Shao estimated that as much as 75 percent of the forest in the core area had been removed in large strips.

"It's kind of a disappointment," said Shao. "Hopefully more organizations, including governments, will pay more attention to the conservation issues there."

Without communication with North Korean officials or the opportunity to visit the site - both of which Shao has requested - there is no way to tell why the trees had been removed. Shao speculated that the land may be used for agriculture since North Korea suffers severe food shortages.

"I don't really understand what's going on in the nature area," Shao said. "They may want to grow something, or they may just want the timber."

Forest on the China side, in the Changbaishan Biosphere Reserve, also was damaged, but not by logging. Overharvesting of pine nuts damaged nearly every pine tree in certain zones of the reserve and all but eliminated a food source for about 22 species of forest wildlife. Pine seed harvesting in the biosphere was banned in 2007, but pine tree populations declined because of the harvesting.

Citation: Tang et al., 'Forest degradation deepens around and within protected areas in East Asia', Biological Conservation, May 2010; doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.01.024