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China's Belt and Road Initiative threatens already fragmented tiger habitats

China's Belt and Road Initiative threatens already fragmented tiger habitats
21 Sep
Since 2006, tiger habitats have shrunk by more than 40 per cent due to forest encroachment. Now, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is set to become the largest human development project in industry. But what impact will the new roads have on tiger populations, habitats and migratory routes? 

Tiger habitats have shrunk by more than 40 per cent since 2006. Their conservation leapt up the global agenda with the launch of ‘Tx2’ in 2010 – an ambitious project committed to doubling the world’s tiger populations by 2022. Since then, economies of Asian countries within the tiger’s range have ascended, and their infrastructural aspirations have followed suit. New research shows that large-scale Asian development projects are fragmenting key tiger habitats, identifying a critical window with which to elevate biodiversity conservation in the planning of development projects.

Asian countries are making unprecedented infrastructural investments. The Asian Development Bank estimated that an annual investment of $1.5 trillion into new infrastructural projects will be needed to meet Asia’s 2030 economic growth projections – a call swiftly answered with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The project is the largest development in human history; valued at over $8 trillion by 2049, spanning 72 countries, and all 13 countries in the tiger’s 1,160,000 km range.

Concrete doesn’t mix well with cats. ‘Roads restrict tiger movement and gene flow, increase animal-vehicle collisions, degrade habitats, and facilitate human settlement. A cascade of downstream impacts follows road development: you start to see settlements, more development projects, and even actors of the illegal wildlife trade,’ says Neil Carter, School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan.

Carter’s research team have recently explored the impact of road development on tiger habitats. Member organisations of Tx2, the tiger conservation movement launched in 2010, identified 76 key ‘tiger conservation landscapes (TCLs)’. The team overlaid this map of TCLs with existing road developments in 13 Asian countries in the tiger’s range.

More than half (57%) of the area in TCLs was less than 5km from the nearest road. By estimating the mean species abundances for key areas, the team showed that roads in tiger habitats have potentially reduced mammal abundances, including tiger’s prey, by ~20%. ‘Tigers are keystone species that regulate the health of their ecosystem. It only takes a couple of kilometres of road to fragment their habitat, disrupt source populations, and remove the ecosystem services they provide,’ says Carter.  

Concrete TigersTiger habitats have shrunk by more than 40 per cent since 2006

The team also estimated that nearly 24,000 km of new roads will be built in TCLs by 2050. India – which has more than 16% of the global TCL area – will add 14,500 km of road in TCLs, a 32 per cent increase from current levels. Among other recommendations, the team is calling for improved environmental impact assessments of development projects: ‘There’s critical opportunities right now to prioritise the significance of biodiversity in policy frameworks for infrastructure. If the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank start mandating international oversight and comprehensive standards on environmental impact assessments, for example, it would likely have a top-down effect that could benefit tigers and other threatened species for many years to come.’

As signatories on the Convention of Biological Diversity, tiger range countries must create legislation that minimizes harm to tigers and other biodiversity. Environmental impact data, such as those reported by Carter’s team, can help to steer planned road developments away from TCLs. ‘With development projects like roads, you can unequivocally show where roads should not be built to protect tiger habitats. That’s an opportunity to build biodiversity conservation as a core value of development projects,’ says Carter.

If Asian countries are serious about tiger conservation, they must enforce sustainable planning policies to ensure the goal of Tx2 – to double tiger populations by 2022 – isn’t waylaid at the roadside of economic ambitions.

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