Alien invasive species may hitch a ride through China’s belt and road initiative into India

[ Sahana Ghosh & Mayank Aggarwal ]

India may not be a part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but it could spell trouble for India’s biosecurity.
A study that quantifies the current (already existing) risks of biological invasions in 123 BRI countries has identified India’s Northeast as one of the 14 global “hotspots” facing a high risk of invasion by terrestrial vertebrate species.
Researchers from the Institute of Zoology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences studied trade and transport data across BRI countries in conjunction with species distribution modelling to analyze the invasion risks of 816 alien terrestrial vertebrates in 123 countries as listed in a Chinese government website. These vertebrate species include 98 amphibians, 177 reptiles, 391 birds and 150 mammals.
“What we have done was quantify the current (already existing) risks of biological invasions in BRI countries for promoting the green development of BRI and for developing biosecurity strategies,” study co-author Yiming Li from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Mongabay-India.
The researchers finally obtained 14 combined invasion hotspots covering 68 BRI countries, which means that these overall hotspots overlap those areas with high habitat suitability and those with high introduction risk – a dangerous combination.
A majority of those hotspots falls along the six proposed BRI economic corridors, the study notes, raising concern that most of the BRI corridors cross several biodiversity hotspots, including the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor (BCIMEC).
India’s Northeast is identified as part of the southern Asian areas, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and northern Pakistan, among the 14 combined global hotspots.
“The highest priority for the biosecurity should focus on 14 invasion hotspots, some of which are located in India. Northeast regions of India have both a high introduction risk and high climatic suitability,” Li emphasized.
The BRI (formerly called One Belt One Road) currently includes more than 120 countries linked by six proposed land-based economic corridors between core cities and key ports and along traditional international transport routes to strengthen connectivity and cooperation between BRI countries.
India has taken a tough stand against the BRI and had boycotted the 2017 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing over concerns of sovereignty, territorial integrity, financial responsibility and environmental protection.
“With regard to China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative, government has publicly articulated its firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and financial responsibility, and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty, equality and territorial integrity of nations,” said India’s MoS for External Affairs VK Singh while replying to a query in parliament in December 2018.
In an email to Mongabay-India, the researchers clarified that the list of 123 BRI countries accessed by them for the modelling study is based on the Chinese Belt and Road government website (, last accessed on 5 December, 2018).
“India is included in this list. In fact, we conducted data analyses quantifying the current risks of biological invasions at the global scale. So these risks are actually independent of BRI,” Li explained.
For India, the researchers detected that there might be suitable habitats for over 600 alien vertebrates – these species include those native to ranges outside India and those native to only parts of India.
“Some other northern regions are predicted to have a high risk of alien species introductions but these areas have lower habitat suitability,” Li said.
However, these areas should also be closely monitored as alien species may be able to establish feral populations in these suboptimal habitats when the number of individuals introduced into a region (propagule pressure) is high, Li warned.
“For some regions in the Himalayas, there are suitable habitats for the aliens but have a low introduction risk. These areas should also be paid close attention as most of these regions are located in global biodiversity hotspots. Regarding the overall invasion risk, it may mainly occur in northeastern and some southern scatter areas,” Li said.
The study notes that the Chinese government expects BRI to be sustainable development, paying equal attention to economic development and environmental conservation, but BRI’s high expenditure on infrastructure construction, by accelerating trade and transportation, is likely to promote alien species invasions, one of the primary anthropogenic threats to global biodiversity.
“We believe that there will be a high opportunity to reduce invasion risks in those areas if we can strengthen the prevention and control strategies against those potential alien species identified by our study,” Li said.
Among the potential invaders that could hitch a ride along China’s new Silk Route is the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) native to the central and eastern US. It feasts on frog populations and other amphibians and is a known carrier of chytrid fungus that has devastated local frog populations across the globe.
According to S Sandilyan of the National Biodiversity Authority, one can’t be sure that all the mentioned species (mentioned in the study) can evolve as invasive species in the region, and it is too early to predict it.
“Prevention is the better and effective option, exercising appropriate risk assessment method is needed. As suggested by the authors, construction of roads without planning will accelerate the invasion process,” Sandilyan, a scientist specialising on invasive alien species at NBA’s Centre for Biodiversity Policy and Law (CEBPOL), told Mongabay-India.
“Environmental issues don’t recognize man-made boundaries. The BRI emphasizes on connectivity which means huge infrastructure development including roads, highways, fibre optic networks and so on. Now there is also a correlation between rapid infrastructure development and damage to the environment. India can definitely take up the matter in the BASIC group or at the bilateral level as it did for its concerns on Brahmaputra’s water issues,” said Professor Srikanth Kondapalli of the School of International Studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Liu, X., Blackburn, T. M., Song, T., Li, X., Huang, C., & Li, Y. (2019). Risks of Biological Invasion on the Belt and Road. Current Biology.
(Reproduced with permission from )