Roads to ruin: Southeast Asia's most environmentally destructive highways

Roads scare the bejeezus out of many scientists because they often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems -- such as unleashing illegal deforestation, logging, hunting, mining, and land speculation. 

Far too many roads are forest killers...

Far too many roads are forest killers...

For that reason it's crucial not to put roads in the wrong places -- such as wilderness areas, places with vital environmental values, or locales with lots of endangered or endemic species.

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) have just published a major analysis of the environmentally most damaging roads in Southeast Asia -- one of the most imperiled and biologically important areas of the planet

This analysis -- which you can download for free here -- identifies the worst roads in Southeast Asia, especially those likely to endanger native mammals and imperil surviving forests.

In total, 16 existing roads and another 8 planned roads were identified as serious 'nature killers'. 

These roads would imperil more than a fifth of all the endangered mammal species in the region, mainly by promoting forest destruction and illegal hunting and wildlife trade.  

A key element of the paper is 10 recommendations to limit road impacts in Southeast Asia.

Far too often, roads are the first step toward ecological Armageddon.  We all have to do more to educate the world about the crucial role that roads play in endangering nature. 

The paper led by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is an important step in the right direction.


ALERT's campaign to save island paradise from loggers

ALERT today is launching a campaign to help tell the world about Woodlark Island -- a small but important paradise off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea.

At least 42 different species -- including the beautiful Woodlark cuscus, a native marsupial -- are endemic to the island, living nowhere else on Earth.  And the island has harbored traditional cultural groups who have lived there sustainably for thousands of years.

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

That's alarming because a Malaysian logging company is about to assault Woodlark Island, with plans to log up to half of the island using heavy-handed industrial extraction methods.

Many of the island's native landowners are worried, because the foreign logging company, Karridale Limited, has evidently secured logging rights to the entire island.

Much remains unknown about Karridale Limited's intentions.  The company has been far from forthcoming about its plans, and has been accused of consulting inadequately with the island's traditional inhabitants.

This is an issue to watch closely.  Careful, small-scale logging is one thing.  But far too often, aggressive Malaysian logging corporations have run rough-shod over native forests and peoples

Today, ALERT is issuing a press release to over 800 media contacts about Woodlark Island -- urging those who care about nature to watch over and defend this small but unique corner of the world. 

The future of an island paradise is at stake.

Please share with your networks.

Will mining company save or destroy the species named after it?

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements tell us about a conservation drama playing out in Malaysia. 

In Southeast Asia, the mining of limestone karst -- rugged mountains or pinnacles of limestone that are the remnants of ancient coral reefs -- is big business. 

In fact, the entire construction industry would grind to a halt if it wasn’t for a valuable commodity from karsts -- the limestone needed for cement.

Apart from being important sources of groundwater, limestone karsts are also key habitats for certain plant and animal groups that, in turn, provide important ecosystem services for humanity.

In particular, the nectar-feeding Dawn Bat, which is the principal pollinator for fruit-producing durian trees, require limestone caves to roost in.

As limestone karsts disappear across Southeast Asia, so will the bats, and the durian fruits along with them.

The famous durian fruit, much prized in Southeast Asia  (photo from www.molluscan.com)

The famous durian fruit, much prized in Southeast Asia (photo from www.molluscan.com)

In Peninsular Malaysia, more than 500 limestone karsts are scattered across the landscape.  Because of their isolation from one another for millions of years, limestone hills only a few kilometers apart can host unique species found nowhere else on Earth.

 It's no wonder that these rugged geological formations are regarded as arks of biodiversity.

A limestone karst  (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

A limestone karst (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

From one such limestone karst in the state of Perak, Malaysia, I discovered a bizarre snail species in 2008.  This snail, Opisthostoma vermiculum, is now the only land snail in the world with four axes of coiling.  It was also considered to be one of the top 10 species discovered in 2008.

Within the same state in Malaysia, scientists recently discovered a new snail species on another limestone karst, known as Kanthan Hill, that is currently being mined.  Aesthetically, the shell of this new species makes less of a statement than O. verimiculum, but it is making a huge statement in conservation circles.

The newly discovered Lafarge snail  (from  Vermeulen & Marzuki (2014)    Basteria  78: 31-34)

The newly discovered Lafarge snail (from Vermeulen & Marzuki (2014) Basteria 78: 31-34)

The scientists who discovered this snail named it Charopa lafargei, after the international mining company Lafarge that owns the mining concession in which this snail was discovered. 

Kanthan limestone hill, home to a number of unique endemic species, including a new snail  (photo by Ong Poh Teck/Basteria).

Kanthan limestone hill, home to a number of unique endemic species, including a new snail (photo by Ong Poh Teck/Basteria).

This endemic snail is already threatened with extinction because of Lafarge’s massive quarry.  It will soon be listed as a Critically Endangered Species. 

Apart from this snail species, Kanthan is also home to nine plant species on Malaysia's Red List of Endangered Plants, one Critically Endangered spider, one gecko, and two other land snails found nowhere else in the world. 

Lafarge has undertaken some initial steps to protect the unique Kanthan wildlife, including a biodiversity assessment.  This is, however, considered insufficient to secure the future of the endangered fauna and flora found there.

Now there are calls for Lafarge to engage leading international biologists to conduct surveys of plants and animals in and around the quarry, leading to habitat and species management recommendations that are publicly available and peer-reviewed.  Till then, quarry expansion should be prohibited.

Beyond this issue, what’s urgently needed is a conservation assessment that ranks limestone karsts in Malaysia according to their suitability for preservation or quarrying.  This national-level exercise should consider the biological, geological, economic and cultural importance of each individual hill. 

Unfortunately, getting funding for this from industry and government has been extremely tough.  But it's an urgent task -- the stakes for some of Southeast Asia's most unique biodiversity could not be higher.

Perils growing for Earth's biodiversity hotspots

Biodiversity hotspots are Earth's most biologically important real estate.  An important new study -- which you can download free here -- sees dark clouds on the horizon for many these crucial ecosystems.

Where the rare things live...

Where the rare things live...

There are 35 biodiversity hotspots across the planet.  They encompass a wide range of different ecosystems but they all have two key features:

First, they're jam-packed with species, especially those that don't occur anywhere else on Earth.  These are known as "locally endemic species" and they're notoriously vulnerable, because they live in just one small area.  For instance, the island of Madagascar has lots of species, such as lemurs, that are completely unique to the island.

Second, hotspots, by definition, have been nuked by land-use change: at least 70% of the original vegetation has disappeared.

The new paper, led by geographer Sean Sloan and including ALERT director Bill Laurance, used a rigorous satellite analysis to estimate how much of the original vegetation survives in an intact condition in each hotspot. 

Unfortunately, most hotspots have much less intact vegetation than previously estimated.  Half now have less than a tenth of their original vegetation -- at which points things start to look seriously dodgy for biodiversity, in part because the original habitat gets severely fragmented and reduced.

An interesting finding is that the hotspots that were formerly in the best shape, in terms of having more of their original vegetation, suffered the worst.  Drier habitats, such as dry forests, open woodlands, and grasslands, fared badly, largely because of expanding agriculture.

These findings highlight an important reality.  For biodiversity, the Earth is far from homogenous, with certain crucial regions overflowing with rare species.  Conserving the last vestiges of these endangered ecosystems is simply vital if we're going to ward off a catastrophic mass-extinction event.