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China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a program to fuse Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks, has the potential to forever alter the biodiversity of key habitat on multiple continents, a new study warns.

Why it matters: By connecting regions through large infrastructure projects — including ports, railways and telecommunications networks — scientists fear the project could accelerate the spread of invasive species. Such species, once established in a region, could harm biodiversity in ways that are difficult to impossible to reverse.

The backstory: The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, and is viewed by many as a modern version of the Silk Road that was set up during the Han Dynasty some 2,000 years ago.

Details: The new study, published Thursday in Current Biology, uses a comprehensive risk analysis to find the areas most vulnerable to the introduction and spread of 816 different invasive species — including amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

The researchers, including authors from the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences, quantified the risks of invasive vertebrates by looking at 2 factors:

  • Risk of transporting a new species: This relies on trade and transport data to determine the risk that an invasive species could hitch a ride to a new location; and
  • Whether habitat is suitable for a new species: This is based on a species' known climatic range and other requirements, and describes whether a species could thrive in a particular spot.

They combined these to identify 14 invasion hotspots in 68 countries, from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia and Africa.

The study found that most of the high-risk areas fell along the 6 corridors that have been proposed for the project, study co-author Yiming Li, a professor of animal ecology and conservation biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in an email to Axios.

Some of the species used in the study include:

  • The African clawed frog, or Xenopus laevis, which is an invasive species that destroys native populations of frogs.
  • European starlings, or Sturnus vulgaris, which can damage crops and compete with native species for food.
  • The ship rat, or Rattus rattus, which, according to Li, has "directly caused the extinction of many species including birds, small mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and plants, especially on island ecosystem."

The authors recommend that a fund be established to help countries monitor for the spread of invasive species and to combat them, Li said.

What they're saying:

"A major weakness of this approach, which the authors acknowledge, is that it is necessarily based on existing trade and transport data... Since a major aim of the BRI is to boost trade on existing routes and forge new ones, it seems likely that this study significantly underestimates the potential risks."
— Richard Corlett, research professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who was not involved in the new study
"This study reveals a potentially massive hidden cost of the Belt & Road—one that’s received almost no attention. In that sense it’s an unusually valuable analysis."
— Bill Laurence, a distinguished research professor at James Cook University in Australia, who was not involved in the new study

Laurence recommends a bolder approach to combating invasive species along the BRI corridors, noting that invasive species cost trillions in damage worldwide per year.

He dismissed the idea of a fund to fight the invasive species, saying it would be "like treating cancer with a band-aid." The better solution, he said, is to limit human access in the first place: "That’s the only thing that really works."

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