Maps Reveal How Global Consumption Hurts Wildlife

As international trade threatens vulnerable species and natural resources, new maps show some unexpected connections.

In a world driven by a globalized economy, the biggest threat to an endangered species is often fueled by consumer demand thousands of miles away. And this makes protection of wildlife and biodiversity an even more daunting task.

Now scientists have traced these economic pressures back to their origins and mapped the spots where major consuming countries are threatening biodiversity around the world. The researchers hope the work can help exporting and importing countries work together on conservation efforts, many of which are still focused on local issues.

“Conservation measures must consider not just the point of impact, but also the consumer demand that ultimately drives resource use,” write Daniel Moran of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Keiichiro Kanemoto of Shinshu University in Japan, in a paper published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Moran and Kanemoto looked at 6,803 vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species around the world, identified the commodities that affect them, then traced those commodities to their final destination using a global trade model. The resulting maps in the gallery above show the cumulative species-threat hot spots on land and nearshore waters linked to legal exports to the United States, the European Union, China, and Japan.

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Species-threat hot spots in South America, driven by consumption in the U.S. (a); in Africa, driven by exports to the E.U. (b); and in southeast Asia, driven by Japanese consumption (c). The scale bars indicate the total of all the fractions of threats to land or marine species caused by the consuming country.

The work revealed some unexpected relationships between exporting and consuming countries. For example, threats to the Amazon basin receive a fair amount of attention in the United States, but the threat from U.S. consumption in Brazil is strongest in the country’s southern highlands, where agriculture is concentrated. The U.S. map also has an unexpected threat hot spot in southern Spain and Portugal, where several fish and bird species are in trouble. (See "Snake Wine and Other Wild Souvenirs to Avoid")

The European Union’s consumption is having a big impact in Africa, particularly in countries like Ethiopia, Morocco, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. Exports to Japan are driving threat hot spots in Southeast Asia, such as on New Britain island in Papua New Guinea, where palm oil and cocoa plantations are concentrated and a lot of logging occurs. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia’s marine species are facing threats from the U.S. and Europe.

The 166 threats attributable to human activity that the scientists analyzed aren’t limited to direct harvesting of endangered species and the plants and other animals they depend on for survival. Exports also have a hand in increasing pollution and encouraging destruction of critical habitat to make way for agriculture, forestry, and urban sprawl, as illustrated in the image below.

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These maps breakdown threats to wildlife in Southeast Asia, as driven by exports to the United States.

Moran and Kanemoto suggest that their maps can help conservationists more efficiently prioritize their work. Collaboration between the producing and consuming countries may be daunting but could be possible in some cases, especially in places where the threat is driven by exports to just two or three countries. The scientists are also hopeful that the work could help consumers interested in avoiding unsustainable products. “It is also possible to imagine companies comparing maps of biodiversity footprints against maps showing where their inputs are sourced,” they write.