South-East Asia includes at least six of the world’s 25 “biodiversity hotspots” – areas of the world with an exceptional concentration of species, which are also under serious threat.
The region contains 20% of the planet’s vertebrate and plant species and the world’s third-largest tropical forest, according to Alice Catherine Hughes, Associate Professor in Landscape Ecology & Conservation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a report published in The Conversation.
Sadly, the region’s fragile biodiversity is frequently forgotten by the global media (compared to more “famous” places like the Amazon forest).
Forest loss is one of the major causes of species extinction in South-East Asia as various cash crop plantations expand. The region has some of the highest rates of deforestation on the planet, having lost 14.5% of forests in the last 15 years.
Dams and wetlands
Apart from deforestation, South-East Asia also has more dams planned than any other part of the planet. Though often looked at as “green power”, dams lead to a loss of biodiversity and undermine rural economies through the loss of livelihoods.
There are currently 78 dams planned for the Mekong river basin. If built, they are projected to reduce the number of migratory fish by 20% to 70% in the river system, in addition to flooding essential habitats and causing regional droughts notes Hughes.
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The Mekong has the highest diversity of freshwater species in the world, and their potential extinction is an ecological disaster. Fisheries on the Mekong are also projected to feed more than 65 million people. Declines in fish stocks will affect livelihoods and diets across the region.
Then there are South-East Asia’s wetlands (such as peat swamps in Malaysia). Around 80% of these are threatened by conversion to agricultural land or development by drainage.
This will affect more than 50 million migratory wading birds that depend on the wetlands for migration and breeding adds Hughes.
Mining is another often overlooked issue that poses a significant threat to biodiversity, especially to karsts (limestone hills and caves), which cover around 800,000sq km of South-East Asia, adds Hughes.
But most of these sites have never been surveyed scientifically (for example up to 90% of cave species in China are estimated to have not been studied). These karst ecosystems are under serious threat as cement comes directly from limestone.
Each limestone hill is like a little island (among a “sea” of forest) which has evolved its own unique species over millions of years.
In our 2015 article, “Stop quarrying hills for limestone, dig for it instead”, one way to reduce ecological damage (instead of knocking down limestone hills) is to do underground mining because 80% of limestone deposits actually lie underground.
Caves help in regulating our water supply. They also shelter bats that provide humans with important services. Bats eat an enormous number of insects and are natural pest controllers. They also help us pollinate fruit trees.