Habitat clearance remains the major cause of biodiversity loss, with consequences for ecosystem services and for people. In response to this, many global conservation schemes direct funds to regions with high rates of recent habitat destruction, though some also emphasize the conservation of remaining large tracts of intact habitat. If the pattern of habitat clearance is highly contagious, the latter approach will help prevent destructive processes gaining a foothold in areas of contiguous intact habitat. Here, we test the strength of spatial contagion in the pattern of habitat clearance. Using a global dataset of land-cover change at 50 50 km resolution, we discover that intact habitat areas in grid cells are refractory to clearance only when all neighbouring cells are also intact. The likelihood of loss increases dramatically as soon as habitat is cleared in just one neighbouring cell, and remains high thereafter. This effect is consistent for forests and grassland, across biogeographic realms and over centuries, constituting a coherent global pattern. Our results show that landscapes become vulnerable to wholesale clearance as soon as threatening processes begin to penetrate, so actions to prevent any incursions into large, intact blocks of natural habitat are key to their long-term persistence.