Roads to ruin: The devastating impacts of the global infrastructure explosion

From an environmental perspective, we may be living in the most frightening times since a giant meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species some 65 million years ago.

New roads everywhere you look...   (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

New roads everywhere you look...  (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

But rather than extraterrestrial devastation, today's tsunami of change is entirely of our own making.  And perhaps no change is of greater importance than the astonishingly rapid explosion of roads and other infrastructure globally. 

As ALERT director Bill Laurance highlights in two hard-hitting editorials this week -- one in the International New York Times and another in New Scientist -- the pace and magnitude of change is truly unprecedented.

For example, in the next few decades, we can expect to see some 25 million kilometers of new paved roads, some 3,700 additional hydroelectric dams, and tens of thousands of new mining and fossil-fuel projects.

In just the next 15 years, investments in new infrastructure projects could approach 70 trillion US dollars -- more than doubling infrastructure investments globally.

Many of these projects will penetrate into the world's last surviving wilderness areas, opening them up like a flayed fish.  Since 2000, for instance, the Congo Basin has been crisscrossed by over 50,000 kilometers of new logging roads.  This has opened up the Basin to poachers armed with rifles and cable snares, who in turn have killed off two-thirds of the global population of forest elephants.

We urge you to read the two brief editorials above, and share them with your friends and colleagues.  There is still time to avoid a global calamity -- but only if we act with a true sense of urgency.

Habitat fragmentation is having "terrifying" effects on ecosystems

A global surge in habitat fragmentation is simply "terrifying", according to two dozen of the world's top ecologists. 

A forest elephant... not many places to hide anymore.

A forest elephant... not many places to hide anymore.

The authors make this assertion in a paper (which you can download free here) in the leading journal Science Express
 
The paper was led by Nick Haddad from North Carolina State University, and includes ALERT members Thomas Lovejoy and Bill Laurance as coauthors.

The study contrasts all of the major experimental studies of habitat fragmentation that have ever been conducted -- including the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project in central Amazonia, which was founded by Lovejoy in 1979 and is the largest and longest-running of all the experiments.

The study concludes that, almost inevitably, fragmentation has a severe effect on species diversity and ecological functioning -- in ecosystems ranging from rainforests to woodlands to isolated patches of moss.

One of the key drivers of change in ecosystems is edge effects -- physical and biological changes associated with the abrupt, artificial edges of habitat fragments.  For instance, you often see more tree mortality, fires, microclimatic stresses, and invasive species near edges.

The study concluded that 70 percent of all the world’s forests are now within one kilometer of a forest edge, and 20 percent is within a football field of an edge.
 
“There’s really only two big blocks of forest surviving on Earth today,” said Professor Haddad.  “That’s the Amazon and Africa’s Congo Basin.”
 
And even those great forests are under assault.  For example, loggers have bulldozed more than 50,000 kilometers of new roads into the Congo since the year 2000.  As a result, the forests have been invaded by poachers with modern weapons, who have killed off two-thirds of the world’s forest elephants for their valuable ivory tusks.
 
The study was highlighted in an excellent article in the famous New Yorker magazine.  It underscores that fact that roads really are the biggest danger.

Once a road cuts into a forest, we often see an influx of illegal colonists, loggers, poachers and miners, especially in developing nations where the rule of law is often limited.
 
In the Amazon, for instance, 95 percent of all deforestation occurs within five kilometers of a road

The take-home message is obvious: If we’re going to preserve parts of wild nature for future generations, we simply must keep the roads out.
 

Global rally against devastating wildlife poaching

The last few decades have been deadly for wildlife.  Since the 1970s, over half of all animals on Earth -- mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish -- have disappeared, according to a major analysis by WWF.  And overhunting -- often by illegal poachers -- is one of the biggest reasons.

Mom killed by poachers...

Mom killed by poachers...

In response, there's just been the first-ever global rally against poaching, focusing specifically on the devastation of elephants and rhinos.  In 136 cities and towns across six continents, thousands of demonstrators voiced their strident concerns about this issue.

The rally echoed the stark messages of the WWF Living Planet Report, which assessed the state of 10,380 populations of 3,038 wildlife species across the Earth.

According to the report, the situation is worst in poorer countries, where wildlife numbers have fallen by 58% on average, between 1970 and 2010.  Latin America had the biggest declines, with 83% of all animals lost in the last 40 years.

Some of the most imperiled species include African forest elephants, whose numbers have plummeted by an estimated two-thirds in just the last decade, following a massive rise in poaching for ivory.

Marine turtles have fared just as badly, falling by 80% in abundance in the last 40 years, the report concludes. 

As the situation grows more desperate for many species, some conservationists are beginning to devise innovative tactics in an effort to combat poaching.  For instance, an Australian-led team is using research on human behavior in an effort to modify attitudes toward rhino poaching in Vietnam.

In Kenya, the situation has grown so desperate that shoot-to-kill orders have been given to park ranges in an effort to combat heavily-armed poachers.  Globally, hundreds of park and wildlife rangers have been murdered by poachers in recent years.

The global rally against poaching is an admirable attempt to raise awareness about the critical role of illegal wildlife hunting.  It's come not a moment too soon.