Remote sensing enables the quantification of tropical deforestation with high spatial resolution. This in-depth mapping has led to substantial advances in the analysis of continent-wide fragmentation of tropical forests. Here we identified approximately 130 million forest fragments in three continents that show surprisingly similar power-law size and perimeter distributions as well as fractal dimensions. Power-law distributions have been observed in many natural phenomena such as wildfires, landslides and earthquakes. The principles of percolation theory provide one explanation for the observed patterns, and suggest that forest fragmentation is close to the critical point of percolation; simulation modelling also supports this hypothesis. The observed patterns emerge not only from random deforestation, which can be described by percolation theory, but also from a wide range of deforestation and forest-recovery regimes. Our models predict that additional forest loss will result in a large increase in the total number of forest fragments-at maximum by a factor of 33 over 50 years-as well as a decrease in their size, and that these consequences could be partly mitigated by reforestation and forest protection.