Invasive species may travel trade routes

Invasive species could increase their global presence via China’s developing trade routes, researchers warn.

A new study models the distribution and likelihood of invasion of terrestrial vertebrate species along China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure development project involving six proposed economic corridors and 121 countries.

The largest project of its kind ever attempted, the BRI has an estimated cost of an unprecedented US$4 trillion for road development, shipping routes and ports. 

A research team led by Yiming Li from the Chinese Academy of Sciences used species distribution modelling to assess the introduction risks for a suite of 816 known invasive terrestrial vertebrate species, as well as habitat suitability across the BRI regions.

Habitat suitability is an indicator of the likelihood a species will become established after introduction.

The findings, reported in a paper published in the journal Current Biology, reveal that more than two thirds of BRI countries have a lethal combination of introduction risk and high habitat suitability.

“Of particular concern, we find that the majority of both introduction hotspots and areas with high habitat suitability fall along the six proposed Economic Corridors,” says Li.

The team identified 14 “invasion hotspots” where biosecurity efforts might best be directed. They are located across the BRI countries, from the Caribbean Islands, northern Africa and Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia and New Zealand. Australia is not a member country or signatory to the scheme.

One of the 816 species of concern is the large North American bullfrog, (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana), which is originally from east of the Rocky Mountains. It is a voracious predator of local frogs and other reptiles, and a carrier of chytrid fungus, which decimates local frog populations. The bullfrog is now established in over 40 countries, and very difficult to eradicate once established.

The findings have prompted the researchers to urgently recommend “the initiation of a project targeting early prevention, strict surveillance, rapid response and effective control of alien species in BRI countries to ensure that this development is sustainable.” This proposed biosecurity plan and its implementation could be funded by the establishment of a dedicated fund, they suggest.

In separate correspondence to the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, Alex Lechner from the University of Nottingham Malaysia and two colleagues suggest that as the 50-year BRI is still only five years old, there is an opportunity to incorporate biodiversity conservation as one of its core values.

For example, they suggest, the Chinese government could plan and implement a network of protected areas and wildlife corridors across Eurasia, as well as preventing and/or controlling alien species invasion effectively. 

China has embraced renewable energy and technology enthusiastically, and could potentially be a world leader in biodiversity conservation, they write.

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