Rich in wildlife, Southeast Asia includes at least six of the world’s 25 “biodiversity hotspots”—the areas of the world that contain an exceptional concentration of species, and are exceptionally endangered. The region contains 20 percent of the planet’s vertebrate and plant species and the world’s third-largest tropical forest.
Some areas, such as Philippines, have lost up to 89 percent of their original forest cover. This loss is rendered especially stark using recent advances in satellite imagery, such as Google Earth timelapse, which shows that many regions have been transformed from pristine forest to agriculture within the last decade or two.
Most new rubber and oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia come directly from rainforest clearance. (Photo: Beawiharta/Reuters)
Avoiding these products is practically impossible. At 61.1 million tonnes (67.4 million tons), palm oil was the most consumed oil globally in 2015, and this figure is rising. Certification aiming to prevent further deforestation and guarantee the sustainability of certified palm oil has also proven difficult, and failed to halt deforestation.
New plantations have continued to drive destruction of natural rainforests, and the species dependent upon these ecosystems for survival. In some cases, the initiatives have ended up using “perverse incentives” which actually encourage deforestation. These include subsidies that facilitate forest clearance by funding conversion of forest to crops, or free provision of rubber seeds to replace natural forests.
Dams, Wetlands and Mining
Deforestation is not the only driver of habitat loss in the region; Southeast Asia also has more dams planned than any other part of the planet. Though often looked at as “green power”, dams lead to a loss of biodiversity and undermine rural economies through the loss of livelihoods.
Mining is another often overlooked issue that poses a significant threat to biodiversity, especially to karsts (limestone outcrops and caves), which cover around800,000 square kilometers of Southeast Asia. Each of these ecosystems are known to harbor more than 10 species not found anywhere else on the planet.
These karst ecosystems are under serious threat. Cement comes directly from karst ecosystems, and between 2011 and 2013 alone, China used more cement (6.6 gigatonnes, or 7.3 billion tons) than the US has in recorded history. China’s approximate annual usage of 1.5 tonnes (1.7 tons) per capita amounts to over 60 percent of the global cement demand annually.
Between 2011 and 2013 alone, China used more cement than the US has used in recorded history. (Photo: Sean Yong/Reuters)
As karsts are under-represented in protected areas – and given the majority of karst-dwelling species are limited to a single site – there is no way of knowing how many species go extinct annually as a consequence.
Traditional medicine in Vietnam and China represents a threat to a huge array of species, but most notably the pangolin, which is the most trafficked animal on the planet. Sadly, the use of endangered species in medicine shows little sign of abating.
Pangolins are the most trafficked animal on the planet. (Photo: Kham/Reuters)
Whereas celebrities have campaigned for species that are targeted for status and ornamentation, such as elephant ivory, many other animals and plants have failed to get the attention needed to prevent over-exploitation. And a number are now facing extinction.
The pet and zoo trade in wildlife, especially for reptiles, amphibians and birds, have recently received attention, as many species formerly thought to be captive-bred are now known to be wild-caught. They have suffered serious population declines as a result of exploitation for trade.
The unique biodiversity of Southeast Asia is under threat because of some of the world’s highest rates of habitat loss, as well as direct over-exploitation of species. Even when forests remain intact, they are being steadily emptied of their biodiversity through hunting.
Though dedicated researchers and conservationists are working to prevent these issues, Southeast Asia will see the extinction of many endemic species in the coming decades. The question of how many will remain depends on the success of conservation and sustainability interventions.
Alice Catherine Hughes is Associate Professor in Landscape Ecology & Conservation, Chinese Academy of Sciences. This article was originally published inThe Conversation and is republished by kind agreement.