The Initiative, which promises to be the largest in human history, involves more than 7,000 projects spanning 72 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe.
Hundreds of roads and railways will be built to facilitate trade and bind China’s economy to two thirds of the world’s population.
But research has revealed 60 per cent of the biodiversity across the three continents could be damaged, with impacts ranging from forest fragmentation to outright destruction.
Alice Hughes from the Chinese Academy of Sciences conducted the first comprehensive study of the development’s environmental impacts, mapping where the planned projects would go and how they overlap with key biodiversity hotspots.
“Wherever you go in this region, there are potential issues for wildlife both by direct exploitation, but also the increased probability of traffic accidents or moving into areas they shouldn’t really be going in,” she said.
Of particular concern are hotspots in South-East Asia, which is already home to several threatened and endangered species not found anywhere else in the world.
There are also fears for Northern and Central Asia, which boast ecosystems largely untouched by humans.
“There are going to be routes being built in areas which have had very few routes in the past,” Dr Hughes said.
“Many species have been migrating for literally thousands of years using the same route. If suddenly you put a road through the middle of it, it can’t be used anymore.”
‘Where the road goes, people will follow’
Aside from direct impacts like logging to make way for roads and railway lines, any additional development brings more people and helps facilitate illegal trades like poaching.
Chief Kunlabon Ponlawa manages a group of rangers who patrol the jungle in Thailand’s east, protecting the forest and its animals from local poachers, but also Cambodian traffickers breaching the border.
Smugglers come looking for rare and endangered species like the Indochinese tiger but also rosewood, a sought-after tree which sells for tens of thousands of dollars in China.
The forest already has two major highways dissecting it and they are slated to hook into the Belt and Road Initiative.
“Where the road goes, people will follow,” Kunlabon Ponlawa said.
When there is more development, there is more threat to wildlife, especially from people who want to commit a crime. It makes it easier for poachers to transport in and out
His team of rangers patrol the jungle in total silence, carrying HK33 assault rifles and other guns to protect themselves against poachers, who could be armed with anything from homemade weapons to AK47s.
They look for signs that people have been there; food tins, bottles, cigarette butts or footprints.
Dozens of rangers have lost their lives in Thailand in recent years, and they fear the Belt & Road Initiative will make their work even more dangerous.
Tigers in Peril as China Eyes South-East Asia
Tim Redford from the Freeland Foundation helps train the rangers and has fought to save Thailand’s wildlife and its dwindling tiger population for more than 30 years.
“Every single piece of forest is being fragmented, and that common extinction problem is happening everywhere,” he said.
“With the introduction of the Belt & Road Initiative, I can only see this increasing even more.”
There are fewer than 200 Indochinese tigers left in the wild in Thailand, which is home to some of the last remaining breeding grounds of the carnivore in South-East Asia.
The species is now extinct in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Large landscapes are essential if we want to keep the tigers. The more they’re fragmented, the higher the chance of that population being lost,” Mr Redford said
“Previously they could wander across the whole landscape and they could move from central Thailand to the Cambodian border and even across into Cambodia, but now this migration is almost impossible,” he said.
In recent years the rangers have been learning to collect and handle evidence to a standard required to stand up in court.
In 2018, a park ranger was hailed a hero when he arrested a prominent construction mogul caught in the forest eating soup made from a freshly killed rare black leopard.
The mogul could face 28 years’ jail if convicted of all the charges against him.