Can Conservation Corridors Save Nature?

Ecosystems are being rapidly fragmented as the human footprint spreads across the Earth.  ALERT’s Mason Campbell, from James Cook University in Australia, tells us about a key initiative that might help nature to survive the onslaught.

Humans are quickly chopping up the natural world, isolating wildlife populations and making them more prone to extinction.

This is happening faster today than ever before.  Roads have already sliced the world’s natural habitats into more than 600,000 pieces.

Most worryingly, the world’s tropical forests — the biologically-richest ecosystems on Earth — are rapidly approaching a ‘fragmentation threshold’, according to new research in Nature, the world’s top-ranked scientific journal.

If we don’t stop cutting down tropical forests, the research suggests, in a half-century we will have up to 33 times more forest fragments than we have today.

Thus, fragmentation is becoming the ‘new normal’ — especially in the tropics.  What we can do to help nature survive?

CONSERVATION CORRIDORS

One popular idea is to create conservation corridors, to help wildlife traverse fragmented landscapes and thereby reduce the impacts on vulnerable species.

But to date, most large-scale investments in wildlife crossings have taken place in North America, Europe, and Australia — not in the tropics.

A notable exception is the Highway 304 Wildlife Corridor currently under construction in Thailand.  Despite initial concerns, there are some reasons for optimism.

Upon completion, the corridor will link two major forest blocks that comprise an area of biological magnificence — the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a renowned World Heritage site.

The two forest blocks have been isolated by a major highway and associated land development, illegal logging, and wildlife poaching.

Linking the two forest blocks could improve survival prospects for critically-endangered Indochinese Tigers – hopefully by allowing tigers from one forest block (Dong Phayayen) to repopulate the other block (Khao Yai), where they have been extinct since 2002.

This would be a vital leap forward – as this is one of only two places on Earth where Indochinese Tigers are known to breed.

IMPRESSIVE BUT EXPENSIVE

As a feat of engineering, the corridor is impressive.  The most important segment includes 430 meters of vehicle tunnels, 570 meters of elevated roadway, and many mini-culverts below the road for small wildlife.

In addition, the Thailand Department of Highways is funding ranger stations at key points along the corridor, to help deter wildlife poachers and illegal loggers.

But a conservation corridor like this is far from cheap.  So far, over US$41 million has been invested, and the project isn’t completed yet.

CREDIT TO THAILAND — BUT FEARS FOR THE WORLD

The Highway 34 Wildlife Corridor demonstrates that Thailand is willing to invest serious money to help sustain one of its most environmentally important areas.

The Thai government deserves applause from the global conservation community for its efforts – and for what might eventually become an iconic effort to sustain nature in Asia.

But Thailand’s project also reveals just how expensive and challenging it can be to reduce the impacts of habitat fragmentation from road expansion.

That’s scary given that paved roads in Asia’s developing nations will double in length in the next three years.

Even more alarming, China’s trillion-dollar “One Belt One Road” initiative will create vast networks of new roads, railways, and extractive industries that will crisscross much of Asia, Africa, and Europe.

China is trying to convince the world not to worry – that its mega-initiative can be managed in a way that won’t have irreversible impacts on vulnerable ecosystems and species.

But few experts are buying China’s arguments.  In fact, serious environmental, social, and financial risks are embedded throughout the venture.

Indeed, the lessons from Thailand’s conservation corridor suggest it would be incredibly expensive – and potentially impossible – to contain environmental disruption from the One Belt One Road projects.