The trade routes that threaten biodiversity


This map shows how consumption in the United States threatens wildlife in other countries around the world. A cup of coffee sipped in a café in Chicago, for example, could be endangering spider monkeys in Central America. The map was created by scientists from Japan and Norway. Let’s zoom in to the hotspots in Central America. Here, species like the spider monkey are facing habitat loss because of deforestation. A lot of this deforestation is driven by export industries, including coffee. So the researchers took a closer look at how the production of goods such as coffee beans in one country is linked to consumption in another. This is a relatively new approach to the problem of biodiversity loss. In 2012, they calculated that close to one-third of global species threats are due to international trade. Here we see how goods imported by Germany threaten around 600 species in countries including Russia, Sudan and Madagascar. Now the researchers have gone one step further, pinpointing the specific habitats within countries that are affected by international trade. They looked at almost 7,000 species of vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered animals that appear on the IUCN red list. First, they mapped each animal’s range: here’s the stub-footed toad and the red-faced spider monkey. Then, they calculated how much consumption of goods in another country contributes to each animal’s threat level. For example, about 2% of the stub-footed toad’s score can be directly attributed to logging driven by the consumption of goods in the United States. The rest is probably driven by consumption in other countries, and by disease. Let’s look at another major consumer nation: Japan. If we zoom into the areas shaded green we see that Japan has a significant impact on marine life around Papua New Guinea. Japan doesn’t import a lot from Papua New Guinea, but this is a species rich area, so trade has a high impact on biodiversity. Mining for gold, for example, affects the mangroves, which are home to critically endangered plants and this vulnerable sea cow. The maps also threw up some surprises. You might expect US consumption to have a high impact on biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest. But although we see some impact along the Amazon River, the greatest effects are in the south, in the Brazilian Highlands, where agriculture and grazing are extensive. This is an endangered woolly spider monkey. US consumption also threatens species in southern Spain and Portugal – countries rarely perceived as threat hotspots. In Spain, a hydro-electric dam project is affecting the habitat of the critically endangered Iberian Lynx. One purpose of these dams is irrigation control for agriculture, including olive oil which is exported to the US. Using these maps, the researchers hope that conservationists will be able to target those trade routes that have the biggest impact on biodiversity, ultimately leading to more sustainable trade and protecting the world’s wildlife.

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