In a study published in Current Biology, researchers in China have examined the potential impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on biodiversity.

China’s BRI, launched five years ago, includes more than 120 countries, linked by six proposed land-based economic corridors between core cities and key ports along traditional international transport routes.

While most of the economic benefits and drawbacks of the BRI have been assessed, the impact on ecology and biodiversity has not been thoroughly investigated. For example, increased connectivity between cities could introduce invasive species that could wreak havoc on native ecosystems.

In this study, scientists led by Professor Li Yiming at the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, estimated the current invasion risk for 816 globally established alien terrestrial vertebrates across four taxa, including 98 amphibians, 177 reptiles, 391 birds and 150 mammals from BRI countries.

They calculated invasion risk based on the likelihood of a species being introduced into a new area and the likelihood that it would become established in its new environment.

Their analyses showed that approximately 15 percent of areas in BRI countries have high overall introduction risks of new vertebrate species as people and cargo move about. Those areas of high risk also are found in the vast majority of BRI countries.

More than two-thirds of the BRI countries also have high habitat suitability, making it more likely that a species, once introduced, might remain.

The researchers identify 14 invasion hotspots regions with both high introduction risk and high habitat suitability in many parts of the world.

These hotspots include the Caribbean Islands, northern Africa, eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, many of the areas most susceptible to biological invasion also fall along the six proposed economic corridors by BRI, said the researchers.

Based on the results, Li’s team urgently recommends initiating projects targeting early prevention, strict surveillance, rapid response and effective control of alien species in BRI countries to ensure that BRI developments are sustainable.

They call for stricter screening for alien wildlife, including imported commodities, vehicles and equipment through airports and seaports, as well as along other transportation corridors.

Noting limited resources in many BRI countries, they suggest the establishment of a special fund to support the operation of biosecurity measures.