The world has been warned it faces a severe global threat from invasive alien species, which is currently underappreciated, underestimated, and often unacknowledged.
The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has issued a new report which says more than 37,000 alien species have been introduced by many human activities to regions and biomes around the world. This conservative estimate is now rising at unprecedented rates. More than 3,500 of these are harmful invasive alien species – seriously threatening nature, nature’s contributions to people and good quality of life. It warned too often ignored until it is too late, invasive alien species are a significant challenge to people in all regions and in every country.
The Assessment Report on Invasive Alien Species and their Control, finds that alongside dramatic changes to biodiversity and ecosystems, the global economic cost of invasive alien species exceeded $423 billion annually in 2019, with costs having at least quadrupled every decade since 1970.
In 2019, the IPBES Global Assessment Report found that invasive alien species are one of the five most important direct drivers of biodiversity loss – alongside changes in land- and sea-use, direct exploitation of species, climate change and pollution. On the basis of this finding, Governments tasked IPBES to provide the best available evidence and policy options to deal with the challenges of biological invasions. The resulting report was produced by 86 experts from 49 countries, working for more than four and a half years. It draws on more than 13,000 references, including very significant contributions from Indigenous Peoples and local communities, making it the most comprehensive assessment ever carried out of invasive alien species around the world.
“Invasive alien species are a major threat to biodiversity and can cause irreversible damage to nature, including local and global species extinctions, and also threaten human wellbeing,” said professor Helen Roy (United Kingdom), co-chair of the Assessment with prof. Anibal Pauchard (Chile) and prof. Peter Stoett (Canada).
The authors of the report stressed that not all alien species become invasive, invasive alien species are the subset of alien species that are known to have become established and spread, which cause negative impacts on nature and often also on people. About 6% of alien plants; 22% of alien invertebrates; 14% of alien vertebrates; and 11% of alien microbes are known to be invasive, posing major risks to nature and to people. People with the greatest direct dependence on nature, such as Indigenous Peoples and local communities, are found to be at even greater risk. More than 2,300 invasive alien species are found on lands under the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples – threatening their quality of life and even cultural identities.
While many alien species were historically introduced on purpose for their perceived benefits to people, the IPBES report finds that the negative impacts of those that do become invasive are enormous for nature and people. “Invasive alien species have been a major factor in 60% and the only driver in 16% of global animal and plant extinctions that we have recorded, and at least 218 invasive alien species have been responsible for more than 1,200 local extinctions . In fact, 85% of the impacts of biological invasions on native species are negative,” said Pauchard. Examples of such impacts include the ways that North American beavers (Castor canadensis) and Pacific Oysters (Magallana gigas) change ecosystems by transforming habitats – often with severe consequences for native species.
Nearly 80% of the documented impacts of invasive alien species on nature’s contributions to people are also negative – especially through damage to food supplies – such as the impact of the European shore crab (Carcinus maenas) on commercial shellfish beds in New England and the damage caused by the Caribbean false mussel (Mytilopsis sallei) to locally important fishery resources in India.
Similarly, 85% of documented impacts negatively affect people’s quality of life – for instance through health impacts, including diseases such as malaria, Zika and West Nile Fever, spread by invasive alien mosquito species like Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegyptii. Invasive alien species also damage livelihoods, for example in Lake Victoria where fisheries have declined due to the depletion of tilapia, as a result of the spread of water hyacinth (Pontederia crassipes), which is the world’s most widespread terrestrial invasive alien species. Lantana (Lantana camara), a flowering shrub, and the black rat (Rattus rattus) are the second and third most widespread globally, with far-reaching impacts on people and nature.
“It would be an extremely costly mistake to regard biological invasions only as someone else’s problem,” said Pauchard. “Although the specific species that inflict damages vary from place to place, these are risks and challenges with global roots but very local impacts, facing people in every country, from all backgrounds and in every community – even Antarctica is being affected.”
The report shows that 34% of the impacts of biological invasions were reported from the Americas, 31% from Europe and Central Asia, 25% from Asia and the Pacific and about 7% from Africa. Most negative impacts are reported on land (about 75%) – especially in forests, woodlands and cultivated areas – with considerably fewer reported in freshwater (14%) and marine (10%) habitats . Invasive alien species are most damaging on islands, with numbers of alien plants now exceeding the number of native plants on more than 25% of all islands.
“The future threat from invasive alien species is a major concern,” said Roy. “37% of the 37,000 alien species known today have been reported since 1970 – largely caused by rising levels of global trade and human travel. Under ‘business-as-usual’ conditions, we project that total numbers of alien species will continue to increase in this way.”
“But business-as-usual is actually unlikely,” continued Roy. “With so many major drivers of change predicted to worsen, it is expected that the increase of invasive alien species and their negative impacts, are likely to be significantly greater. The accelerating global economy, intensified and expanded land- and sea-use change, as well as demographic changes are likely to lead to increases in invasive alien species worldwide. Even without the introduction of new alien species, already established alien species will continue to expand their ranges and spread to new countries and regions. Climate change will make the situation even worse.”
“One of the most important messages from the report is that ambitious progress in tackling invasive alien species is achievable,” said Stoett. “What is needed is a context-specific integrated approach, across and within countries and the various sectors involved in providing biosecurity, including trade and transportation; human and plant health; economic development and more. This will have far-reaching benefits for nature and people.”