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 habitats 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 or impossible to reverse.
Background: The Belt and Road Initiative 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.
What they did: 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 (CAS), quantified the risks by looking at 2 factors: "introduction risk" on whether an invasive species could hitch a ride to a new location and "habitat suitability" on if 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.
What they found: Most of the high-risk areas fell along the 6 corridors that have been proposed for the project, study co-author Yiming Li, CAS professor of animal ecology and conservation biology, tells Axios. Some of the species studied include...
- The African clawed frog, or Xenopus laevis, is an invasive species that destroys native populations of frogs.
- The ship rat, or Rattus rattus, has "directly caused the extinction of many species including birds, small mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and plants, especially on island ecosystems," according to Li.
The authors recommend that a fund be established to help countries monitor for the spread of invasive species and to combat them, Li says.
What they're saying: Bill Laurence, a distinguished research professor at James Cook University in Australia, who was not involved in the study, said, "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."
Yes, but: Laurence 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 says, is to limit human access in the first place. "That’s the only thing that really works."
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