Simulating the impact of Belt and Road initiative and other major developments in Myanmar on an ambassador felid, the clouded leopard, Neofelis nebulosa
Kaszta Ż., Cushman SA., Htun S., Naing H., Burnham D., Macdonald DW.
© 2020, The Author(s). Context: After decades of political and economic isolation, Myanmar is now the focus of large international investments, particularly from China, which raises questions of how to balance national development with safeguarding the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. Objective: To evaluate the impact of five major developments in Myanmar on forest ecosystems, using clouded leopard as a focal and umbrella species for wider biodiversity conservation. Methods: Based on an empirical habitat relationships model, we identified core areas and corridors in Myanmar, and compared them across the development scenarios. We simulated population dynamics and genetic diversity in each scenario using an individual-based, spatially explicit cost-distance population genetics model. Results: The predicted current clouded leopard population may be larger than the current carrying capacity of the landscape, raising the possibility that the species’ population has not yet equilibrated with recent habitat loss and degradation. All the developments combined resulted in 36% decrease in landscape connectivity and 29% decrease in simulated clouded leopard population size, including substantial reduction in genetic diversity. Each development was predicted to have a negative effect; however, emerging economic zones had disproportionally large impacts (− 24% in connectivity and − 25% in population size), resulting in fragmentation of the largest core areas. Similarly, the Indian Highway and Silk Road caused fragmentation of the largest core habitats, and the Pipeline Railroad significantly decreased connectivity in the main stronghold for clouded leopards. Conclusions: Spatially-explicit assessments like the one presented here provide quantitative evaluation on development impacts and help optimize the trade-offs between development and conservation. The rapid and increasing development of Myanmar and surrounding Southeast Asian nations pose an enormous threat to the biodiversity of the region. Optimizing the trade-off between development goals and conservation is essential to minimize the effects of rapid land use change on biodiversity.