Indo-Burma is one of the most threatened biodiversity hotspots, due to the rate of resource exploitation and habitat loss. Only about five percent of natural habitats remain in relatively pristine condition, with another 10 to 25 percent of the land in damaged, but ecologically functional, condition.
Indo-Burma was one of the first places where humans developed agriculture, and has a long history of using fire to clear land for agriculture and other needs. The need for agricultural products has only increased in recent years, with the expansion of both human populations and markets. This has contributed to widespread forest destruction; tree plantations (teak, rubber, oil palm) have replaced large areas of lowland forest, while coffee, tea, vegetable crops and sugarcane plantations threaten montane and hill forests. Other threats to forests include logging, mining for gems and ore, firewood collection, and charcoal production.
Aquatic ecosystems are also under intense development pressure in many areas. Freshwater floodplain swamps and wetlands are destroyed by draining for wet rice cultivation, particularly in Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Rivers have been dammed in order to store water to generate electricity for countries’ economic growth, or for export to neighboring countries to generate foreign exchange earnings. Damming a river section not only transforms that section into a large pond, but also reduces the temperature and oxygen content, and increases river-bed erosion and water turbidity downriver. Reservoir operation procedures result in occasional or regular flooding of sandbars, sandbanks, stretches of channel mosaic, and other habitats that would normally be exposed during the dry season, with severe impacts on nesting bird and turtle species.
Mangroves have been converted to shrimp aquacultural ponds, while intertidal mudflats have been extensively afforested with mangrove or intensely fished by lines of stack nets, which severely impacts their value as feeding habitat for migratory waterbirds and other species. Moreover, sand dune ecosystems are severely threatened by afforestation, for instance, with the Australian exotic Casuarina equisetifolia. Finally, overfishing and the increasing use of destructive fishing techniques is a significant problem in both coastal and offshore marine ecosystems.
The combination of rapid population growth and economic development have also caused overexploitation of natural resources to reach critical levels in the hotspot. As in the other hotspots of Southeast Asia, the wildlife trade, particularly for the food and traditional medicine markets in China, is an enormous problem for biodiversity conservation. The increasingly high value of products derived from some species has put them at risk even within strictly protected areas. The Chinese demand for turtles, snakes, tigers, and other species has depleted populations to the brink of extinction in just a few years. The volume of trade in turtles is astounding, with over ten million individuals exported to China from Southeast Asia each year. Adults, juveniles, and eggs of all species are harvested. The threat to plants through international and domestic trade could be just as great, but there is far less accurate information; timber species, orchids, and other high value plants are particularly at risk. Commercial logging has been particularly intense in lowland evergreen forests, to the point where few intact tracts remain and stocks of some species have been exhausted commercially.