Increasing demand for rubber is catastrophic for endangered species

Rubber plantations clouded leaopard
CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

A new study predicts that up to 21 million acres of rubber plantations will be required to meet our needs, spelling doom for biodiversity in parts of Southeast Asia.

Oh how we love our cars; oh how our cars need tires to do their thing. And although rubber for tires does grow on trees, in a manner of speaking, meeting the demand required by the tire industry will have a marked impact on tropical diversity.

A new study from the University of East Anglia (UEA) predicts that between 10.5 and 21 million acres of plantations will be required to meet the projected need for rubber required by the tire industry by 2024. Many areas of Asian forest – from Java and Bali to Vietnam, Southwest China and the Philippines – will be threatened; such broad expansion will have “catastrophic” biodiversity impacts, with globally threatened unique species and ecosystems all put in harm’s way. Species such as the endangered white-shouldered ibis, yellow-cheeked crested gibbon and clouded leopard (pictured above) could lose precious habitat.

Lead researcher Eleanor Warren-Thomas, from UEA's School of Environmental Sciences, explains that the tire industry consumes 70 percent of all natural rubber grown, and rising demand for tires is behind the plantation boom and subsequent threat to forests.

"There has been growing concern that switching land use to rubber cultivation can negatively impact the soil, water availability, biodiversity, and even people's livelihoods,” she says, "But this is the first review of the effects on biodiversity and endangered species, and to estimate the future scale of the problem in terms of land area."

While consumer awareness and sustainability programs for palm oil have come to the attention of the public, rubber plantations have been coasting under the radar.

"Protected areas have already been lost to rubber plantations. For example, more than 70 percent of the 75,000 hectare Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia was cleared for rubber between 2009 and 2013,” says Warren-Thomas. "Macaques and gibbons are known to disappear completely from forests which have been converted to rubber, and our review shows that numbers of bird, bat and beetle species can decline by up to 75 percent.”

"These findings show that rubber expansion could substantially exacerbate the extinction crisis in Southeast Asia," she adds.

As of now, rubber grown on deforested land is not treated any differently in the market to rubber grown in a more sustainable way, which leaves consumers with no way of knowing what kind of choices they are making in terms eco-friendliness.

And even though the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative (SNR-i) was launched in January 2015, it needs support from large tire manufacturers and attention from sustainability advocates to ensure that it becomes a viable program. The researchers are urging companies like Goodyear and Michelin to support the sustainability initiatives.

"There may be ways to integrate biodiversity into rubber plantation landscapes that should be researched and put into practice, and at the very least, companies that convert legally protected forests and protected species habitats to rubber should face restrictions to market access through a sustainability certification,” says Warren-Thomas.

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