With an average of two new species per week being discovered in the area over the past 10 years, the Greater Mekong has revealed itself to be a hotbed of biodiversity and a godsend for scientists, according to a WWF report released Monday.
At least 1,068 new species were identified between 1997 and 2007 in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma and China’s Yunan province, the report said. But the Mekong area is also threatened by rapid development and requires the coordinated action of all governments if those species are to survive, it added.
“The situation is becoming urgent. The Greater Mekong forms a large proportion of the Indo-Burma hotspot…[which] ranks as one of the top five most threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world, with only five percent of its natural habitat remaining,” according to the report, “First Contact in the Greater Mekong.”
Forty-four new animal and plant species have been discovered in Cambodia, far fewer than the 319 found in Vietnam, WWF Cambodia Country Director Teak Seng said Monday. The fact that Vietnam logged more new species and years of war.
“In the future, I think there will be more discoveries because [Cambodia is] still unknown. Researchers continue to investigate, particularly on plants,” Teak Seng said.
New species identified in Cambodia include a frog, chiromantis samkosensis, which was found in 2007 in the Cardamom Mountains, located in the southwest of the country, which has green blood and turquoise bones. Also discovered was the woolly bat kerivoula titania, which was also discovered last year; and the pocket-sized snake lycodon cardamomensis, found in 2002.
Even more new species discovered in recent months did not make it into the report, Teak Seng added.
In the region, the most surprising species included a plate-sized spider hiding in caves in Laos and a bright pink millipede in Thailand that fends off attackers with cyanide.
The report identified the building of hydropower dams and the conversion of forested land for cash crop cultivation as the main threats to the region’s biodiversity, along with logging, over fishing, population growth, economic development and wildlife trade.
“Development should be [in] parallel with conservation…. These two pillars should be treated as equal, important priorities in the government agenda,” Teak Seng said, adding that for now economic development seemed to override conservation considerations, and that he hoped the new discoveries noted in the report would spur governments to act more strongly.
There is political will to protect the environment, Teak Seng added, pointing to the high proportion of protected areas in Cambodia compared to other countries. But the government now has to improve its management capacity to effectively implement its environmental policies, he added.
The report called on all six governments around the Mekong to work together and agree to formalize conservation of a 600,000 square km transboundary zone around the river.
“I think it’s a very good idea, but the thing is some countries along the Mekong River want to work together but some countries want to take advantage of each other,” said Seng Bunla, Cambodia country director for Conservation International.
“Some countries build a dam without thinking about the impact on the countries located lower on the Mekong,” Seng Bunla added, giving the example of dams in Vietnam affecting fish migrations and the livelihood of Cambodians downstream.
Officials at the Ministry of Environment could not be reached for comment Monday.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)