Tropical forest losses hit their third-highest level in almost two decades last year, despite improved conservation in parts of Southeast Asia, researchers said on Wednesday, warning of rising deforestation risks as nations restart pandemic-hit economies.

The loss in 2020 of 4.2 million hectares of primary forest — intact areas of old-growth trees — equaled the size of the Netherlands, according to data from Global Forest Watch (GFW) and the University of Maryland.

"2020 was supposed to be this landmark year for all of these international commitments ... and actually we're seeing things moving in the wrong direction," said Mikaela Weisse, a project manager at the GFW forest monitoring service, run by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington-based think tank.