UK Study Warns of Rubber Market’s Impact on Local Wildlife

A booming natural rubber market fueled by the global tire industry is proving “catastrophic” for endangered species in Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia, U.K. researchers argue in a new paper.

In a study published today in the journal Conservation Letters, researchers from the University of East Anglia predict that an additional 8.5 million hectares of rubber plantations will be needed to meet demand by 2024. They call for more research and safeguards to ensure that those new plantations do not destroy vital habitat for the region’s endangered species.

“In Cambodia, forest areas earmarked for further rubber plantations contain critically endangered water birds like the White Shouldered Ibis, globally threatened mammals like Eld’s deer and Banteng, and many important primates and carnivores,” lead researcher Eleanor Warren-Thomas said in a statement accompanying the study.

“Macaques and gibbons are known to disappear completely from forests which have been converted to rubber, and our review shows that numbers of birds, bat and beetle species can decline by up to 75 percent,” she said.

In their review of available studies, the researchers focused on four regional “biodiversity hotspots.” One of these, Indo-Burma, covers Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, most of Burma and Thailand, as well as parts of southwest China.

“Protected areas have already been lost to rubber plantations,” Ms. Warren-Thomas said, using as an example the Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province, which lost 70 percent of its 75,000 hectares to rubber cultivation between 2009 and 2013.

The Cambodian government has in recent years made a major push to boost natural rubber production, aiming to make it the country’s second biggest agricultural export after rice.

In a recent review of the country’s economic land concessions (ELCs), local rights group Licadho found that rubber by far outstripped any other crop being grown on the concessions, accounting for at least 834,000 hectares, or 39 percent of the total area that ELCs cover in Cambodia.

Many of those ELCs overlap wildlife sanctuaries, protected parks and national forests, and their owners usually start operating without having conducted the requisite social and environmental impact assessments. Licadho and other rights groups say the concessions are threatening the country’s forests and wildlife.

The government claims the concessions are doing little damage because they are only being granted in the protected areas’ buffer zones, where the forests are already degraded, though both claims are false.

In their study, the U.K. researchers call for more study on ways to possibly enhance the biodiversity of rubber plantations so that the two can coexist, and for restrictions on the sale of rubber grown on land cleared in protected forests.

The director of the Agriculture Ministry’s wildlife and biodiversity department, Keo Omaliss, could not be reached for comment.

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