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Planned expansion of human infrastructure threatens Key Biodiversity Areas

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Human infrastructure has been built in at least 80 per cent of sites identified as being internationally important for biodiversity, a University of Cambridge study has found.

The new assessment of the presence of infrastructure in Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) raises concerns that more of the sites could contain power plants, mines and oil and gas infrastructure in the future.

Maps of the KBAs were compared with datasets of different types of infrastructure in categories such as transport, dams and reservoirs and energy.

Infrastructure is one of the greatest drivers of threats to biodiversity according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It can cause natural habitat destruction, pollution and increased disturbance by humans.

Researchers from BirdLife International, WWF and the RSPB, in association with the University of Cambridge, have conducted an assessment of infrastructure in KBAs and found that it is widespread and likely to increase.

“It’s concerning that human developments exist in the vast majority of sites that have been identified as being critical for nature,” said Ash Simkins, a zoology PhD student at the University of Cambridge who led the study.

KBAs are defined as sites that contribute significantly to the global persistence of biodiversity. For example, they may contain species that are under a high risk of extinction or are home to species or ecosystems that are found in only a small area worldwide.

Researchers assessed 15,150 KBAs on land and found that 80 per cent contained infrastructure. Multiple combinations of infrastructure types occurred in KBAs, with the most common being roads (75 per cent), power lines (37 per cent) and urban areas (37 per cent).

The research also showed that planned infrastructure developments could lead to an additional 2,201 KBAs containing mines, an additional 1,508 KBAs containing oil and gas infrastructure and an additional 1,372 KBAs containing power plants.

“We recognise that infrastructure is essential to human development but it’s about building smartly. This means ideally avoiding or otherwise minimising infrastructure in the most important locations for biodiversity. If the infrastructure must be there, then it should be designed to cause as little damage as possible, and the impacts more than compensated for elsewhere,” said Simkins.

Researchers found that countries in South America, Sub-Saharan, Central and Southern Africa, and parts of South-East Asia are amongst the areas with the highest proportion of infrastructure disruption in KBAs.

“It’s also concerning to see that in the future, extensive mining and oil and gas related infrastructure is planned to be built in many of the world’s most important sites for biodiversity,” Simkins added.

The study also found that that infrastructure within a KBA varies in the degree to which it may drive a loss of biodiversity, although more research is required to find out the extent to which different types of infrastructure impact wildlife within the site.

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