How Countries ‘Import’ and ‘Export’ Extinction Risk around the World

How Countries 'Import' and 'Export' Extinction Risk around the World thumbnail

A recent study puts a number to how much our consumption imperils threatened species

Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) female named Malui sitting in a tree in Central African Republic’s Dzanga-Sangha Special Dense Forest Reserve in December 2011. Credit: Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

In the dense jungles of Cameroon and nearby countries, the population of the iconic and critically endangered western lowland gorilla declined by nearly 20 percent between 2005 and 2013 to about 360,000 individuals–and their number is expected to plunge by another 80 percent over about the next 65 years. This decline has been caused by raw materials taken from their habitat that were used to make goods in China, and then sold in the U.S. This is just one of thousands of species the world stands to lose as part of the global biodiversity crash caused by human activities, including international trade, which alone drives 30 percent of extinction threats to species.

A new study quantifies how the consumption habits of people in 188 countries, through trade and supply networks, ultimately imperil more than 5,000 threatened and near-threatened terrestrial species of amphibians, mammals and birds on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. For the study, recently published in Scientific Reports, researchers used a metric called the extinction-risk footprint. The team found that 76 countries are net “importers” of this footprint, meaning they drive demand for products that contribute to the decline of endangered species abroad. Top among them are the U.S., Japan, France, Germany and the U.K. Another 16 countries–with Madagascar, Tanzania and Sri Lanka leading the list–are designated as net “exporters,” meaning their extinction-risk footprint is driven more by consumption habits in other countries. In the remaining 96 countries, domestic consumption is the most significant driver of extinction risk within those nations.

Graphic shows global consumption and territorial extinction-risk footprint data and highlights top 3 importers and exporters.
Credit: Amanda Montanez; Source: “Quantifying and Categorising National Extinction-Risk Footprints,” by Amanda Irwin et al., in Scientific Reports, Vol. 12, Article No. 5861. Published online April 7, 2022

Amanda Irwin (a Ph.D. student) and her colleagues looked at global supply chain data and IUCN data about species populations and locations. They also consulted the Species Threat Abatement and Recovery Metric (STAR) Metric of the organization, which measures the severity and scope of threats to species. The researchers then paired these data with computer models that showed the interactions between different economic sector sectors. This allowed them to determine how consumption from certain sectors, such construction or agriculture, affected animal populations. Irwin states that they are actually tracking the flow of money through the global economic system until they reach the point of what is called ‘final demand’ or “consumption,” which is where you and I spend money.

She and her collaborators found that in western Africa, 44 percent of the extinction risk of the western gorilla (predominantly represented by the western lowland gorilla) is exported. International consumers are responsible for a significant portion of the species’ threat. The largest single slice of that exported footprint (14 percent) stems from China’s demand for raw materials such as wood and iron. For example, gorilla habitat could be used to log African trees. Although the percentages may seem small, Irwin states that “if we don’t have this understanding about the connection between consumption, production, and money flows, then we won’t be able to slow down production .

Other species highlighted in the study include the Malagasy giant jumping rat, a mammal that can jump 40 inches high and is found only in Madagascar. Demand for food and drinks in Europe contributes to 11 percent of this animal’s extinction-risk footprint through habitat loss caused by expanding agriculture. The U.S. is responsible for 3 percent of the extinction risk footprint for Honduras’s Nombre de Dios streamside amphibian, an amphibian that is affected by logging and deforestation.

” This study is significant because it provides the first application STAR Metric for understanding the biodiversity impacts associated with international trade,” said Alexandra Marques, a researcher at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency who investigates the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss.

The study authors believe that their findings can help consumers, businesses, and governments make informed decisions about species health. This has been done before for certain ecosystems, such as forests. However, this new study could increase the number and types of products that consider endangered species. A dining room table could be purchased with labels that certify that the wood has not caused habitat destruction for a specific species. A coffee or tea company could make sure that its supply chain does NOT include products that are grown in areas that amphibians rely on or that are being deforested to support agriculture. The government could use IUCN Red List species to calculate the impact of specific industries on their economic accounting. They could also negotiate international trade agreements to protect biodiversity hotspots.

While some countries have laws in place to protect endangered species, individuals might not realize the huge impact their purchases can have on species from other countries. Juha Siikamaki, study co-author, and chief economist at IUCN, said that the U.S., which has the largest global consumption footprint, has effectively protected endangered species domestically. It should also expand that effort to other countries. He says, “We need to question whether some of that relative success was at the cost of creating impacts elsewhere.” Is it enough to only focus on what’s happening within our country if our consumption is causing impact elsewhere? We need to think about our responsibility in a wider way .”


    Susan Cosier is a freelanc

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