Protected areas (PAs) are a country's key strategy to conserve and manage forest resources. In sub-Saharan Africa, the effectiveness and efficiency of PA institutions in delivering sustainable outcomes is debated, however, and deforestation has not been avoided within such formal regimes. This paper analyzes the processes that led to deforestation within the PAs on the transboundary Mt. Elgon, Uganda-Kenya, employing institutional theory. Landsat satellite imagery helped identify and quantify forest loss over time. The study showed how, since 1973, about a third of all forests within the PAs on Elgon have been cleared in successive processes. Within formal protected area regimes, complex political and institutional factors drive forest loss. We argue, therefore, that policies to counter deforestation using a PA model have to be considered and understood against the broader background of these factors, originating both inside and outside the PA regimes. (C) 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.