Between 1997 and 2016, an amazing 2,524 new species have been discovered by science in the jungles, rivers and even urban areas of the Greater Mekong.
This is a region that spans Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the southern province of Yunnan in China. The landscapes of this vast area are just as diverse as the countries that it enshrines, from dusty savannahs to dense rainforests, and from slow-moving rivers to icy torrents.
The latest discoveries include a crocodile lizard that has been turned into a cartoon character, a snail-eating turtle discovered in a Thai food market and a horseshoe bat that would not look out of place in a Star Wars movie.
These are just three of the 115 new species discovered by scientists in the Greater Mekong region, according to a new report released recently by WWF.
The report, Stranger Species, documents the work of hundreds of scientists from universities, conservation organisations and research institutes around the world who discovered 11 amphibians, two fish, 11 reptiles, 88 plants and three mammals in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
All this adds to the 163 new species announced last year including a rainbow-headed snake resembling David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character, a dragon-like lizard and a newt that looks like a Klingon from the movie Star Trek.
The discoveries also include a beautifully coloured frog found in the limestone karst mountains of Vietnam, two mole species found by a team of Vietnamese and Russian scientists, and a loach (fish species) from Cambodia with a long body and bold stripes.
All these new species are in addition to existing rare species such as crested gibbons, tigers, Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins and the elusive saola, described as the most remarkable large mammal discovery of the last 70 years.
The Greater Mekong also contains the largest combined tiger habitat in the world – 540,000sqkm or roughly the size of France. But over the last 10 years or so, numbers of this amazing feline have crashed by 70% in this part of the world.
Few places on Earth show such a strong link between human and ecosystem connectivity, as the Greater Mekong.
The Mekong River basin accounts for up to 25% of the global freshwater catch, making it the world’s largest inland fishery. It is a vital source of food and income for the basin’s over 70 million people.
“More than two new species a week and 2,500 in the past 20 years speaks to how incredibly important the Greater Mekong is to global biodiversity,” said Stuart Chapman, WWF-Greater Mekong Regional Representative.
“While the threats to the region are many, these discoveries give us hope that species from the tiger to the turtle will survive.”
Highlights of the report include:
– The snail-eating turtle, Malayemys isan, was not discovered in a river or forest, but a local market in North-East Thailand. Dr Montri Sumontha noticed the turtle in two different markets and suspected it was a new species. He asked the shopkeepers, who said they caught them in a nearby canal, so he purchased them to check. He notes that the turtle is threatened by infrastructure such as dikes and dams and urges protection under Thai law.
– A vibrantly coloured frog, Odorrana Mutschmanni (pic above), is one of five new species discovered in the same karst forest in Northern Vietnam by a research team led by Dr Truong Nguyen. These species are threatened by quarrying for cement and road construction and their karst forest home desperately needs new protection.
– The Vietnamese crocodile lizard, Shinisaurus crocodilurus vietnamensis (pic above), is a medium-sized lizard that lives in remote freshwater and evergreen forest habitats of South China and Northern Vietnam. It is so heavily threatened by habitat destruction, coal mining and collection for the pet trade that as few as 200 individuals could remain in Vietnam. The lizard, discovered by a research team headed by Professor Dr Thomas Ziegler has been immortalised in a comic strip featuring “Shini”, who helps explain to school children the importance of protecting lizards.
– A loach (fish species) from Cambodia with striking black and brown stripes on its elongated body.
– A mountain horseshoe bat, Rhinolophus monticolus, found in the evergreen forests of mountainous Laos and Thailand that took 10 years to determine as a new species by Dr Pipat Soisook. Its distinctive horseshoe-shaped facial structure – known as a noseleaf – has led some to liken it to a character from the cantina scene in Star Wars.
– A frog and four plants from Myanmar – which is opening up to scientific exploration and could harbour hundreds of undiscovered species.
– Two moles discovered in Vietnam have given insights into the history and formation of Indochinese mammals since they were found in a network of streams and rivers in Northern Vietnam. As one of the discoverers of the species, Dr Alexei Abramov, remarked, one of the ways moles managed to maintain stable populations and escape poachers is because they live underground inside protected areas.
These new species discoveries come at a critical time. The Greater Mekong region is under intense development pressure from mines to roads to dams, threatening the survival of the natural landscapes that make it so unique.
Poaching for bushmeat or the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade puts additional pressure on the region’s wildlife, meaning many species could be lost before they are even discovered.
The illegal wildlife trade is decimating wildlife populations across the Greater Mekong, especially in the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet. This criminal trade threatens wildlife across Asia and into Africa.
A major driver of the trade is tourists from China and Vietnam traveling to areas such as MongLa and Tachilek in Myanmar, and border areas such as Boten and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos.
“The species in the Greater Mekong are like works of art, and deserve protection from unscrupulous collectors who are willing to pay thousands of dollars or more for the rarest, most unique and most endangered species,” Chapman said.
“Golden Triangle markets operate with impunity in open view, so it is critical that governments in the region improve enforcement against poaching and close illegal wildlife markets, including notorious tiger and bear farms.”
WWF has launched an ambitious project to disrupt the trade by closing down the biggest markets in the Greater Mekong region.
Working with partners and across borders, WWF will attempt to significantly reduce illegal trade in key threatened species such as elephants, tigers and rhinos by promoting species protection legislation, supporting effective transboundary cooperation and improving law enforcement effectiveness at key border crossings. – WWF