A deadly fungus threatens to wipe out 100 frog species – here’s how it can be stopped


Deborah Bower, University of New England and Simon Clulow, Macquarie University

What would the world be like without frogs? Earth is in its sixth mass extinction event and amphibians are among the hardest hit.

But in the island of New Guinea, home to 6% of the world’s frog species, there’s a rare opportunity to save them from the potential conservation disaster of a chytrid fungus outbreak.

The amphibian chytrid fungus is a microscopic, aquatic fungus that infects a protein in frog skin. It interferes with the balance of electrolytes and, in turn, effectively gives frogs a heart attack.




Read more:
Tiny frogs face a troubled future in New Guinea’s tropical mountains


If the amphibian chytrid fungus invades New Guinea, we estimate 100 species of frogs could decline or become extinct. This disease, which emerged in the 1980s, has already wiped out 90 species of frogs around the world.

The New Guinean horned land frog, Sphenophryne cornuta, with young. These frogs are under threat from a fungus that has wiped out 90 frog species around the world.
Stephen Richards

Collaborating with 30 international scientists, we developed a way to save New Guinea’s frog species from a mass extinction, one that’s predictable and preventable. We need urgent, unified, international action to prepare for the arrival of the deadly fungus, to slow its spread after it arrives and to limit its impact on the island.

It’s rare we can identify a conservation disaster before it occurs, but a long history of amphibian declines in Australia and South America has equipped us with the knowledge to protect areas where the amphibian chytrid fungus is yet to reach.

Why we should care about frogs

Like Australian frogs, New Guinea frogs may be particularly vulnerable to the chytrid fungus. These frogs share a close genetic relationship suggesting that, if exposed, New Guinea frogs may respond similarly to Australian ones, where around 16% of frog species are affected.

Impacted frogs include corroboree frogs, Australian lacelid frogs and green and golden bell frogs.




Read more:
Australian endangered species: Southern Corroboree Frog


Losing so many species can have many terrible impacts. Tadpoles and frogs are important because they help recycle nutrients and break down leaf litter. They are also prey for larger mammals and reptiles, and predators of insects, invertebrates and small vertebrates. They help keep insect plagues, such as those from flies and mosquitoes, in check.

Frogs are also an important source of human medical advancements – they were even used for a human pregnancy test until the 1950s.

A call to action to protect frogs

Frogs are one of the most threatened groups of species in the world – around 40% are threatened with extinction.

And species conservation is more expensive once the species are threatened. They can be more costly to collect and more precious to maintain, with a greater need for wider input from recovery groups to achieve rapid results.

In our study, we highlight the increased costs and requirements for establishing captive breeding for two species of closely related barred frog, one common and one threatened. We determined that waiting until a species is threatened dramatically increases the costs and effort required to establish a successful breeding program. The risks of it failing also increase.

Our research draws on lessons learned from other emerging diseases and approaches taken in other countries. By addressing the criteria of preparedness, prevention, detection, response and recovery, we detail a call for action to protect the frogs of New Guinea. It will require dedicated funding, a contingency plan for the likely, eventual arrival of the disease and a task force to oversee it.




Read more:
Frogs v fungus: time is running out to save seven unique species from disease


This task force would oversee active monitoring for disease and prepare an action plan to implement on the disease’s arrival. We have already begun to establish facilities that can handle captive breeding and gene banking for frogs in collaboration with PNG counterparts.

The need for amphibian conservation in New Guinea also presents an opportunity for investment and training of local scientists. More species unknown to science will be described and the secret habits of these unique frogs will be discovered before they are potentially lost.

Conservation in New Guinea is complicated

The island of New Guinea is governed by Papua New Guinea on the eastern side and Indonesia on the western side. So it will take a coordinated approach to reduce risks in both countries for successful biosecurity.

Historically, New Guinea has had little import or tourism. But as the country develops, it becomes more at risk of emerging diseases through increased trade and and entry of tourists from chytrid-infected regions, especially with little biosecurity at entry ports.

What’s more, many species there are unknown to science and few ecological studies have documented their habitat requirements. Unlike Australia, many of New Guinea’s frogs have adapted for life in the wet rainforest.

Rather than developing into tadpoles that live in water, more than 200 frog species in New Guinea hatch from their eggs as fully formed baby frogs. It’s difficult for us to predict how the amphibian chytrid fungus will affect these frogs because Australia has only a handful of these types of species.

We don’t know how to remove the amphibian chytrid fungus from large areas once it has invaded, so strict biosecurity and conservation contingency planning is needed to protect New Guinea’s frogs.




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Friday essay: frogwatching – charting climate change’s impact in the here and now


For example, all incoming goods into New Guinea should be inspected for possible hitchhiker frogs that could carry chytrid. Camping or hiking equipment carried by tourists should also be closely inspected for attached mud, which could harbour the pathogen, as is the case in Australia.

International researchers have experience in emerging amphibian diseases. Papua New Guineans and Indonesians have traditional and ecological expertise. Together we have the opportunity to avert another mass decline of frogs. Without taking action, we could lose a hundred more species from the world and take another step towards mass extinction.The Conversation

Deborah Bower, Lecturer in Ecosystem Rehabilitation, University of New England and Simon Clulow, MQ Research Fellow, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Deadly frog fungus has wiped out 90 species and threatens hundreds more



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The Mossy Red-eyed Frog is among hundreds of species threatened with extinction at the hands of chytrid fungus.
Jonathan Kolby/Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center

Benjamin Scheele, Australian National University and Claire Foster, Australian National University

It started off as an enigma. Biologists at field sites around the world reported that frogs had simply disappeared. Costa Rica, 1987: the golden toad, missing. Australia, 1979: the gastric brooding frog, gone. In Ecuador, Arthur’s stubfoot toad was last seen in 1988.

By 1990, cases of unexplained frog declines were piling up. These were not isolated incidents; it was a global pattern – one that we now know was due to chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that was infecting and killing a huge range of frogs, toads and salamanders.

Our research, published today in Science, reveals the global number of amphibian species affected. At least 501 species have declined due to chytrid, and 90 of them are confirmed or believed extinct.




Read more:
Where did the frog pandemic come from?


When biologists first began to investigate the mysterious species disappearances, they were at a loss to explain them. In many cases, species declined rapidly in seemingly pristine habitat.

Species declines typically have obvious causes, such as habitat loss or introduced species like rats. But this was different.

The first big breakthrough came in 1998, when a team of Australian and international scientists led by Lee Berger discovered amphibian chytrid fungus. Their research showed that this unusual fungal pathogen was the cause of frog declines in the rainforests of Australia and Central America.

However, there were still many unknowns. Where did this pathogen come from? How does it kill frogs? And why were so many different species affected?

After years of painstaking research, biologists have filled in many pieces of the puzzle. In 2009, researchers discovered how chytrid fungus kills frogs. In 2018, the Korean peninsula was pinpointed as the likely origin of the most deadly lineage of chytrid fungus, and human dispersal of amphibians suggested as a likely source of the global spread of the pathogen.

Yet as the mystery was slowly but surely unravelled, a key question remained: how many amphibian species have been affected by chytrid fungus?

Early estimates suggested that about 200 species were affected. Our new study reveals the total is unfortunately much larger: 501 species have declined, and 90 confirmed or suspected to have been killed off altogether.

The toll taken by chytrid fungus on amphibians around the world. Each bar represents one species; colours reveal the extent of population declines.
Scheele et al. Science 2019

Devastating killer

These numbers put chytrid fungus in the worst league of invasive species worldwide, threatening similar numbers of species as rats and cats. The worst-hit areas have been in Australia and Central and South America, which have many different frog species, as well as ideal conditions for the growth of chytrid fungus.

Large species and those with small distributions and elevational ranges have been the mostly likely to experience severe declines or extinctions.

Together with 41 amphibian experts from around the world, we pieced together information on the timing of species declines using published records, survey data, and museum collections. We found that declines peaked globally in the 1980s, about 15 years before the disease was even discovered. This peak coincides with biologists’ anecdotal reports of unusual amphibian declines that occurred with increasing frequency in the late 1980s.

Encouragingly, some species have shown signs of natural recovery. Twelve per cent of the 501 species have begun to recover in some locations. But for the vast majority of species, population numbers are still far below what they once were.

Most of the afflicted species have not yet begun to bounce back, and many continue to decline. Rapid and substantial action from governments and conservation organisations is needed if we are to keep these species off the extinct list.




Read more:
Saving amphibians from a deadly fungus means acting without knowing all the answers


In Australia, chytrid fungus has caused the decline of 43 frog species. Of these, seven are now extinct and six are at high risk of extinction due to severe and ongoing declines. The conservation of these species is dependent on targeted management, such as the recovery program for the iconic corroboree frogs.

The southern corroboree frog: hopefully not a disappearing icon.
Corey Doughty

Importantly, there are still some areas of the world that chytrid has not yet reached, such as New Guinea. Stopping chytrid fungus spreading to these areas will require a dramatic reduction in the global trade of amphibians, as well as increased biosecurity measures.

The unprecedented deadliness of a single disease affecting an entire class of animals highlights the need for governments and international organisations to take the threat of wildlife disease seriously. Losing more amazing species like the golden toad and gastric brooding frog is a tragedy that we can avoid.The Conversation

Benjamin Scheele, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University and Claire Foster, Research Fellow in Ecology and Conservation, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Expanding gas mining threatens our climate, water and health


Melissa Haswell, Queensland University of Technology and David Shearman, University of Adelaide

Australia, like its competitors Qatar, Canada and the United States, aspires to become the world’s largest exporter of gas, arguing this helps importing nations reduce their greenhouse emissions by replacing coal.

Yes, burning gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal. Yet the “fugitive emissions” – the methane that escapes, often unmeasured, during production, distribution and combustion of gas – is a much more potent short-term greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.




Read more:
Who gets to decide whether we dig up coal and gas?


A special report issued by the World Health Organisation after the 2018 Katowice climate summit urged governments to take “specific commitments to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants” such as methane, so as to boost the chances of staying with the Paris Agreement’s ambitious 1.5℃ global warming limit.

Current gas expansion plans in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, where another 2,500 coal seam gas wells have been approved, reveal little impetus to deliver on this. Harvesting all of WA’s gas reserves would emit about 4.4 times more carbon dioxide equivalent than Australia’s total domestic energy-related emissions budget.

Gas as a cause of local ill-health

There are not only global, but also significant local and regional risks to health and well-being associated with unconventional gas mining. Our comprehensive review examines the current state of the evidence.

Since our previous reviews (see here, here and here), more than 1,400 further peer-reviewed articles have been published, helping to clarify how expanding unconventional gas production across Australia risks our health, well-being, climate, water and food security.




Read more:
Chief Scientist CSG report leaves health concerns unanswered


This research has been possible because, since 2010, 17.6 million US citizens’ homes have been within a mile (1.6km) of gas wells and fracking operations. Furthermore, some US research funding is independent of the gas industry, whereas much of Australia’s comparatively small budget for research in this area is channelled through an industry-funded CSIRO research hub.

Key medical findings

There is evidence that living close to unconventional gas mining activities is linked to a wide range of health conditions, including psychological and social problems.

The US literature now consistently reports higher frequencies of low birth weight, extreme premature births, higher-risk pregnancies and some birth defects, in pregnancies spent closer to unconventional gas mining activities, compared with pregnancies further away. No parallel studies have so far been published in Australia.

US studies have found increased indicators of cardiovascular disease, higher rates of sinus disorders, fatigue and migraines, and hospitalisations for asthma, heart, neurological, kidney and urinary tract conditions, and childhood blood cancer near shale gas operations.

Exploratory studies in Queensland found higher rates of hospitalisation for circulatory, immune system and respiratory disorders in children and adults in the Darling Downs region where coal seam gas mining is concentrated.

Water exposure

Chemicals found in gas mining wastewater include volatile organic compounds such as benzene, phenols and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, as well as heavy metals, radioactive materials, and endocrine-disrupting substances – compounds that can affect the body’s hormones.

This wastewater can find its way into aquifers and surface water through spillage, injection procedures, and leakage from wastewater ponds.

The environmental safety of treated wastewater and the vast quantities of crystalline salt produced is unclear, raising questions about cumulative long-term impacts on soil productivity and drinking water security.

Concern about the unconventional gas industry’s use of large quantities of water has increased since 2013. Particularly relevant to Australian agriculture and remote communities is research showing an unexpected but consistent increase in the “water footprint” of gas wells across all six major shale oil and gas mining regions of the US from 2011 to 2016. Maximum increases in water use per well (7.7-fold higher, Permian deposits, New Mexico and Texas) and wastewater production per well (14-fold, Eagle Ford deposits, Texas) occurred where water stress is very high. The drop in water efficiency was tied to a drop in gas prices.

Air exposure

Research on the potentially harmful substances emitted into the atmosphere during water removal, gas production and processing, wastewater handling and transport has expanded. These substances include fine particulate pollutants, ground-level ozone, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, hydrogen sulfide, formaldehyde, diesel exhaust and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Measuring concentrations and human exposures to these pollutants is complicated, as they vary widely and unpredictably in both time and location. This makes it difficult to prove a definitive causal link to human health impacts, despite the mounting circumstantial evidence.




Read more:
Why Australians need a national environment protection agency to safeguard their health


Our review found substantially more evidence of what we suspected in 2013: that gas mining poses significant threats to the global climate, to food and water supplies, and to health and well-being.

On this basis, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has reinforced its position that no new gas developments should occur in Australia, and that governments should increase monitoring, regulation and management of existing wells and gas production and transport infrastructure.The Conversation

Melissa Haswell, Professor of Health, Safety and Environment, School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland University of Technology and David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lack of climate policy threatens to trip up Australian diplomacy this summit season



File 20180907 190656 1qu49hy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Australia’s climate stance risks its standing on the world stage.
Shutterstock.com

Christian Downie, Australian National University

Australia has navigated a somewhat stormy passage through the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru. Scott Morrison’s new-look government faced renewed accusations at the summit about the strength of Australia’s resolve on climate policy.

Australia is neither a small nation nor one of the most powerful, but for many years it has been a trusted nation. Historically, Australia has been seen as a good international citizen, a country that stands by its international commitments and works with others to improve the international system, not undermine it.

But in recent years climate change has threatened this reputation. This is
especially so among our allies and neighbours in the Pacific region, who attended this week’s Nauru summit.




Read more:
For Pacific Island nations, rising sea levels are a bigger security concern than rising Chinese influence


With Australia’s new foreign minister, Marise Payne, attending instead of
the prime minister – not a good look, albeit understandable in the circumstances –
the government came under yet more international pressure to state plainly its commitment to the Paris climate agreement.

Pacific nations may be divided on many issues, but climate change is rarely one of them.

Before the meeting, Pacific leaders urged Australia to sign a pledge of support for the agreement and to declare climate change “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing” of the region.

Australia ultimately signed the pledge, but also reportedly resisted a push for the summit’s communique to include stronger calls for the world to pursue the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5℃.




Read more:
Pacific pariah: how Australia’s love of coal has left it out in the diplomatic cold


The government now has a chance to catch its breath before international summit season begins in earnest in November with the East Asia Summit in Singapore, followed quickly by APEC in Papua New Guinea and then the G20 summit in Buenos Aires on November 30 and December 1, not to mention the next round of UN climate negotiations in Poland in December.

The G20 is arguably the most important summit, bringing together the leaders of the 20 most powerful nations in the world. It is a forum at which Australia’s
position on the climate issue has already suffered significant diplomatic damage under the Coalition government.

When Australia hosted the G20 Brisbane talks in 2014, the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, worked to keep climate change off the formal agenda. Stiff opposition from several of Australia’s allies forced him to back down.

Other nations will be wary of Australia’s stance at the G20 this time around,
especially following the leadership turmoil in Canberra.

Indeed, with climate policy continuing to divide the Coalition, there is a
significant risk that further missteps on climate change will undermine Australia’s international standing.

A better option

It doesn’t have to be this way. Australia could easily meet its Paris target of cutting emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030 with a national climate and energy strategy. But right now Australia is without one, and with Malcolm Turnbull’s passing as prime minister and the demise of the National Energy Guarantee, it looks unlikely to have a strategy in place by the time the G20 rolls around in November.

Australia’s overall greenhouse emissions have been rising for several years now, and many independent projections have Australia overshooting what is in reality a modest target.

But, rather than rectifying the situation, Morrison and his new cabinet have yet to make it completely clear whether Australia will stand by the Paris Agreement at all.

Even if the scenario of a US-style pullout is avoided, Morrison will face mounting pressure from the vocal band of conservatives in his party room not to commit to anything on climate change, be it symbolic or tangible.




Read more:
The too hard basket: a short history of Australia’s aborted climate policies


What the government chooses to do next could have reputational repercussions for years to come.

Australia may not have the might of other nations, but what it has had at times is a reputation as a constructive international partner. This needs to be restored if Australian diplomats are to successfully navigate a disruptive international landscape.

Climate policy is clearly a threat to our domestic politics and to the job security of Australian prime ministers. With further missteps it could upend our diplomacy as well. Summit season will go a long way towards determining how much of a threat it really is.The Conversation

Christian Downie, Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world


Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.




Read more:
How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra


The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun.
Sumatran Orangutan Society

Ambitious but ‘nightmarishly complicated’

The BRI is an ambitious but nightmarishly complicated venture, and far less organised than many believe. The hundreds of road, port, rail, and energy projects will ultimately span some 70 nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region. It will link those nations economically and often geopolitically to China, while catalysing sweeping expansion of land-use and extractive industries, and will have myriad knock-on effects.

Up to 2015, the hundreds of BRI projects were reviewed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which is directly under China’s State Council. Many observers have assumed that the NDRC will help coordinate the projects, but the only real leverage they have is over projects funded by the big Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China – which they directly control.

China’s Belt & Road Initiative will sweep across some 70 nations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region.
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Most big projects – many of which are cross-national – will have a mix of funding from various sources and nations, meaning that no single entity will be in charge or ultimately responsible. An informed colleague in China describes this model as “anarchy”.

Tapanuli Orangutan

The dangerous potential of the BRI becomes apparent when one examines the Tapanuli Orangutan. With fewer than 800 individuals, it is one of the rarest animals on Earth. It survives in just a speck of rainforest, less than a tenth the size of Sydney, that is being eroded by illegal deforestation, logging, and poaching.

All of these threats propagate around roads. When a new road appears, the ape usually disappears, along with many other rare species sharing its habitat, such as Hornbills and the endangered Sumatran Tiger.

A Tapanuli Orangutan.
Maxime Aliaga

The most imminent threat to the ape is a US$1.6 billion hydropower project that Sinohydro (China’s state-owned hydroelectric corporation) intends to build with funding from the Bank of China and other Chinese financiers. If the project proceeds as planned, it will flood the heart of the ape’s habitat and crisscross the remainder with many new roads and powerline clearings.

It’s a recipe for ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives. Other major lenders such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank aren’t touching the project, but that isn’t slowing down China’s developers.

What environmental safeguards?

China has produced a small flood of documents describing sustainable lending principles for its banks and broad environmental and social safeguards for the BRI, but I believe many of these documents are mere paper tigers or “greenwashing” designed to quell anxieties.

According to insiders, a heated debate in Beijing right now revolves around eco-safeguards for the BRI. Big corporations (with international ambitions and assets that overseas courts can confiscate) want clear guidelines to minimise their liability. Smaller companies, of which there are many, want the weakest standards possible.

The argument isn’t settled yet, but it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t want to exclude its thousands of smaller companies from the potential BRI riches. Most likely, it will do what it has in the past: issue lofty guidelines that a few Chinese companies will attempt to abide by, but that most will ignore.

The Greater Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra is the last place on Earth where Orangutans, Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos still persist together.

Stacked deck

There are three alarming realities about China, of special relevance to the BRI.

First, China’s explosive economic growth has arisen from giving its overseas corporations and financiers enormous freedom. Opportunism, graft and corruption are embedded, and they are unlikely to yield economically, socially or environmentally equitable development for their host nations. I detailed many of these specifics in an article published by Yale University last year.

Second, China is experiencing a perfect storm of trends that ensures the harsher realities of the BRI are not publicly aired or even understood in China. China has a notoriously closed domestic media – ranked near the bottom in press freedom globally – that is intolerant of government criticism.

Beyond this, the BRI is the signature enterprise of President Xi Jinping, who has become the de-facto ruler of China for life. Thanks to President Xi, the BRI is now formally enshrined in the constitution of China’s Communist Party, making it a crime for any Chinese national to criticise the program. This has had an obvious chilling effect on public discourse. Indeed, I have had Chinese colleagues withdraw as coauthors of scientific papers that were even mildly critical of the BRI.

President Xi Jinpeng at the 19th People’s Congress, where the BRI was formally inscribed into China’s national constitution.
Foreign Policy Journal

Third, China is becoming increasingly heavy-handed internationally, willing to overtly bully or covertly pull strings to achieve its objectives. Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University has warned that Australia has become a target for Chinese attempts to stifle criticism.

Remember the ape

It is time for a clarion call for greater caution. While led by China, the BRI will also involve large financial commitments from more than 60 nations that are parties to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including Australia and many other Western nations.




Read more:
China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world


The ConversationWe all have a giant stake in the Belt and Road Initiative. It will bring sizeable economic gains for some, but in nearly 40 years of working internationally, I have never seen a program that raises more red flags.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world



File 20171130 12035 1gkyop1.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A Chinese road-building corporation felling rainforest in the Congo Basin.
Bill Laurance, Author provided

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Many observers of China’s escalating global program of foreign investment and infrastructure development are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. In an ideal world, China’s unbridled ambitions will improve economic growth, food security and social development in many poor nations, as well as enriching itself.

Such hopes are certainly timely, given the isolationism of the US Trump
administration, which has created an international leadership vacuum that China is eager to fill.

But a close look reveals that China’s international agenda is far more exploitative than many realise, especially for the global environment. And the Chinese leadership’s claims to be embracing “green development” are in many cases more propaganda than fact.


Read more: China will need to be more transparent to achieve its development goals


To help steer through the maze, I provide here a snapshot of China’s present environmental impacts. Are China’s assertions reasoned and defensible, or something else altogether?

Predatory force?

For a start, China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of illegally poached wildlife and wildlife products. From rhino horn, to pangolins, to shark fins, to a menagerie of wild bird species, Chinese consumption drives much of the global trade in wildlife exploitation and smuggling.

Over the past 15 years, China’s rapacious appetite for ivory has largely driven a global collapse of elephant populations. In response to growing international criticism, China promised to shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017.

The author examining a Forest Elephant gunned down by ivory poachers in central Africa.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

But even before China’s ban has taken full force, a black market for ivory is developing in neighbouring Laos. There, Chinese entrepreneurs are churning out great quantities of carved ivory products, specifically designed for Chinese tastes and openly sold to Chinese visitors.

China is also the world’s biggest importer of illegal timber, a trade that imperils forests while defrauding developing nations of billions of dollars each year in timber royalties.

China claims to be working to reduce its illegal timber imports, but its efforts are half-hearted at best, judging by the amount of illegal timber still flowing across its border with Myanmar.

A queue of logging trucks in Southeast Asia.
Jeff Vincent

Infrastructure tsunami

More damaging still are China’s plans for infrastructure expansion that will irreparably degrade much of the natural world.

China’s One Belt One Road initiative alone will carve massive arrays of new roads, railroads, ports, and extractive industries such as mining, logging, and oil and gas projects into at least 70 nations across Asia, Europe, and Africa.

A partial representation of China’s One Belt One Road scheme, circa 2015.
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Chinese President Xi Jinping promises that the Belt and Road initiative will be “green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable”, but such a claim is profoundly divorced from reality.

As my colleagues and I recently argued in Science and Current Biology, the modern infrastructure tsunami that is largely being driven by China will open a Pandora’s box of environmental crises, including large-scale deforestation, habitat fragmentation, wildlife poaching, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

China’s pursuit of natural resources is also escalating across Latin America. In the Amazon, for example, big mining projects – many of which are feeding Chinese industries – don’t just cause serious local degradation, but also promote widespread deforestation from the networks of roads bulldozed into remote areas to access the mines.

Why roads are so dangerous for nature.

Overall, China is the most aggressive consumer of minerals on the planet, and the biggest driver of tropical deforestation.

Beyond this, China is pushing to build a 5,000km railroad across South America, to make it cheaper for China to import timber, minerals, soy and other natural resources from ports along South America’s Pacific coast. If it proceeds, the number of critical ecosystems that would be impacted by this project is staggering.

A World Bank study of more than 3,000 overseas projects funded or operated by China revealed how it often treats poor nations as “pollution havens” – transferring its own environmental degradation to developing nations that are desperate for foreign investment.

Finally, much has been made of the fact that China is beginning to temper its appetite for domestic fossil-fuelled energy. It is now a leading investor in solar and wind energy, and recently delayed construction of more than 150 coal-fired electricity plants in China.

These are unquestionably pluses, but they need to be seen in their broad context. In terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, China has exploded past every other nation. It now produces more than twice the carbon emissions of the United States, the second-biggest polluter, following the greatest building spree of coal, nuclear, and large-scale hydro projects in human history.

Despite its new post-Trump role as the world’s de facto climate leader, China’s overall agenda could scarcely be described as green.

A tiger relaxes along a grassy bank.
Matt Gibson/Shutterstock

Iceberg ahead

Some would say it’s unfair to criticise China like this. They would argue that China is merely following a well-trodden path of exploitative development previously forged by other nations and colonial powers.

But China is not the same as any other nation. The astounding growth and size of its economy, its dangerously single-minded vision for exploiting natural resources and land internationally, its intolerance of internal and external criticism, and its increasingly closed media and official myopia all combine to make it unique.


Read more: Developing countries can prosper without increasing emissions


President Xi admits that many Chinese corporations, investors and lenders operating overseas have often acted aggressively and even illegally overseas. But he says his government is powerless to do much about it. The most notable government response to date is a series of “green papers” containing guidelines that sound good in theory but are almost universally ignored by Chinese interests.

Indigenous forest people in the Congo Basin become increasingly poor and marginalised as foreign miners, loggers and poachers invade their lands.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

Are Xi’s assertions of powerlessness believable? He increasingly rules China with an iron hand. Is it really impossible for China to guide and control its overseas industries, or are they simply so profitable that the government doesn’t want to?

The ConversationOf course, China’s huge international ambitions will have some positive effects, and could even be economically transformative for certain nations. But many other elements will benefit China while profoundly damaging our planet.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Year-on-year bleaching threatens Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage status


Terry Hughes, James Cook University; Barry Hart, Monash University, and Karen Hussey, The University of Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef has already been badly damaged by global warming during three extreme heatwaves, in 1998, 2002 and 2016. A new bleaching event is under way now. The Conversation

As shown in a study published in Nature today, climate change is not some distant future threat. It has already degraded large tracts of the Great Barrier Reef over the past two decades.

The extreme marine heatwave in 2016 killed two-thirds of the corals along a 700km stretch of the northern Great Barrier Reef, from Port Douglas to Papua New Guinea. It was a game-changer for the reef and for how we manage it.

Our study shows that we cannot climate-proof coral reefs by improving water quality or reducing fishing pressure. Reefs in clear water were damaged as much as muddy ones, and the hot water didn’t stop at the boundaries of no-fishing zones. There is nowhere to hide from global warming. The process of replacement of dead corals in the northern third of the reef will take at least 10-15 years for the fastest-growing species.

The Great Barrier Reef is internationally recognised as a World Heritage Area. In 2015 UNESCO, the world body with oversight of World Heritage Areas, considered listing the reef as a site “in danger” in light of declines in its health.

Australia’s response falling short

In response to concerns from UNESCO, Australia devised a plan, called the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan. Its ultimate goal is to improve the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the reef: the attributes of the Great Barrier Reef that led to its inscription as a World Heritage Area in 1981.

We have written an independent analysis, delivered to UNESCO, which concludes that to date the implementation of the plan is far too slow and has not been adequately funded to prevent further degradation and loss of the reef’s values. A major shortcoming of the plan is that it virtually ignores the greatest current impact on the Great Barrier Reef: human-caused climate change.

The unprecedented loss of corals in 2016 has substantially diminished the condition of the World Heritage Area, reducing its biodiversity and aesthetic values. Key ecological processes are under threat, such as providing habitat, calcification (the formation of corals’ reef-building stony skeletons) and predation (creatures eating and being eaten by corals). Global warming means that Australia’s aim of ensuring the Great Barrier Reef’s values improve every decade between now and 2050 is no longer attainable for at least the next two decades.

What needs to change

Our report makes 27 recommendations for getting the Reef 2050 Plan back on track. The following are critical:

  • Address climate change and reduce emissions, both nationally and globally. The current lack of action on climate is a major policy failure for the Great Barrier Reef. Local action on water quality (the focus of the Reef 2050 Plan) does not prevent bleaching, or “buy time” for future action on emissions. Importantly, though, it does contribute to the recovery of coral reefs after major bleaching.

  • Reduce run-off of sediment, nutrients and pollutants from our towns and farms. To date the progress towards achieving the water quality targets and uptake of best management practice by farmers is very poor. Improving water quality can help recovery of corals, even if it doesn’t prevent mortality during extreme heatwaves.

  • Provide adequate funding for reaching net zero carbon emissions, for achieving the Reef 2050 Plan targets for improved water quality, and limiting other direct pressures on the reef.

At this stage, we do not recommend that the reef be listed as “in danger”. But if we see more die-backs of corals in the next few years, little if any action on emissions and inadequate progress on water quality, then an “in danger” listing in 2020, when UNESCO will reconsider the Great Barrier Reef’s status, seems inevitable.


This article was co-authored by Diane Tarte, co-director of Marine Ecosystem Policy Advisors Pty Ltd. She was a co-author of the independent report to UNESCO on the Great Barrier Reef.

Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University, James Cook University; Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University, and Karen Hussey, Deputy Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.