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More than 1000 New Species Discovered in Rivers, Jungles...and Restaurants of the Greater Mekong in Past Decade

Fish, Plants, Amphibians and Mammals -- Including an 'Extinct' Rock Rat -- Are Under Threat from Dams, Roads and Development

WASHINGTON, DC, December 15, 2008 -- A rat thought extinct for 11 million years and a hot-pink, cyanide-producing dragon millipede are among a thousand new species discovered in the Greater Mekong Region of Southeast Asia in the last decade, according to a new report launched by World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 

First Contact in the Greater Mekong reports that 1068 species were discovered or newly identified by science between 1997 and 2007 – which averages two new species a week. This includes the world’s largest huntsman spider, with a foot-long leg span and the Annamite Striped Rabbit, one of several new mammal species found here. New mammal discoveries are a rarity in modern science.

While most species were discovered in the largely unexplored jungles and wetlands, some were first found in the most surprising places. The Laotian rock rat, for example, thought to be extinct 11 million years ago, was first encountered by scientists in a local food market, while the Siamese Peninsula pit viper was found slithering through the rafters of a restaurant in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand.

“This report cements the Greater Mekong’s reputation as a biological treasure trove -- one of the world’s most important storehouses of rare and exotic species,” said Dekila Chungyalpa, Director of the WWF-US Greater Mekong Program. “Scientists keep peeling back the layers and uncovering more and more wildlife wonders.”

The findings, highlighted in this report, include 519 plants, 279 fish, 88 frogs, 88 spiders, 46 lizards, 22 snakes, 15 mammals, 4 birds, 4 turtles, 2 salamanders and a toad. The region comprises the six countries through which the Mekong River flows including Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. It is estimated thousands of new invertebrate species were also discovered during this period, further highlighting the region’s immense biodiversity.  

“This region is like what I read about as a child in the stories of Charles Darwin,” said Dr Thomas Ziegler, Curator at the Cologne Zoo. “It is a great feeling being in an unexplored area and to document its biodiversity for the first time… both enigmatic and beautiful,” he said.

The report stresses that economic development and environmental protection must go hand-in-hand to provide for livelihoods and alleviate poverty, but also to ensure the survival of the Greater Mekong's astonishing array of species and natural habitats.

“This poorly understood biodiversity is facing unprecedented pressure….for scientists, this means that almost every field survey yields new diversity, but documenting it is a race against time,” said Raoul Bain, Biodiversity Specialist from the American Museum of Natural History.

The report’s authors recommend a formal, cross-border agreement between the governments of the Greater Mekong to address the threats to biodiversity in the region.

The WWF network is working throughout the Greater Mekong region to promote this agreement and address the threats to biodiversity from its base in Vientiane, Laos. Stuart Chapman, who heads the WWF network’s Greater Mekong Programme, says that protecting habitat while partnering with governments, businesses and local communities to address threats from development and agriculture is essential. “Who knows what else is out there waiting to be discovered, but what is clear is that there is plenty more where this came from,” he said. “The scientific world is only just realizing what people here have known for centuries.”

Read the report and learn more about the species discovered in Greater Mekong

Notes to the Editor

  • Information related to this press release, including high resolution photographs, audio interviews, species footage, and First Contact in the Greater Mekong report, can be downloaded from http://www.divshare.com/folder/443367-922 
  • WWF is collaborating with many research institutions in the region to discover new species. One WWF scientist, Dr. Chavalit Vidthayanon, discovered eight new fish species which are included in this report.
  • WWF is working with governments and industry of the six Greater Mekong nations to conserve and sustainably manage 232,000 square miles of transboundary forest and freshwater habitats in this unique and rapidly changing land.
  • The Greater Mekong countries, with the help of the Asian Development Bank, are increasingly cooperating to accelerate economic development. Economic activity and associated investments in infrastructure development are concentrated along three "economic corridors" that crisscross the region and have the potential to lift the region's rural populations out of poverty but also to increase existing threats to natural resources. WWF believes that these natural resources are essential to the region’s long-term development and that the Greater Mekong nations can achieve economic development while ensuring the integrity of wildlife and habitats.
  • Sixteen of WWF’s Global 200 ecoregions, critical landscapes of international biological importance, are found in the Greater Mekong. These landscapes are home to an estimated 20,000 plant species, 1,200 bird species, 800 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 430 mammal species, including Asian elephants, tigers and one of only two populations of the critically endangered Javan rhino in the world. In addition to rare Irrawaddy dolphins, the Mekong River basin is estimated to house at least 1,300 species of fish, including the Mekong giant catfish, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. By length, the Mekong is the richest waterway for biodiversity on the planet, fostering more species per unit area than the Amazon. Many of the species occur nowhere else on Earth.