The future of tropical forest biodiversity depends more than ever on the effective management of human-modified landscapes, presenting a daunting challenge to conservation practitioners and land use managers. We provide a critical synthesis of the scientific insights that guide our understanding of patterns and processes underpinning forest biodiversity in the human-modified tropics, and present a conceptual framework that integrates a broad range of social and ecological factors that define and contextualize the possible future of tropical forest species. A growing body of research demonstrates that spatial and temporal patterns of biodiversity are the dynamic product of interacting historical and contemporary human and ecological processes. These processes vary radically in their relative importance within and among regions, and have effects that may take years to become fully manifest. Interpreting biodiversity research findings is frequently made difficult by constrained study designs, low congruence in species responses to disturbance, shifting baselines and an over-dependence on comparative inferences from a small number of well studied localities. Spatial and temporal heterogeneity in the potential prospects for biodiversity conservation can be explained by regional differences in biotic vulnerability and anthropogenic legacies, an ever-tighter coupling of human-ecological systems and the influence of global environmental change. These differences provide both challenges and opportunities for biodiversity conservation. Building upon our synthesis we outline a simple adaptive-landscape planning framework that can help guide a new research agenda to enhance biodiversity conservation prospects in the human-modified tropics.