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New species discovered in the Mekong region

Ajit Niranjan
January 26, 2022

Conservationists have counted 224 new species in Southeast Asia's Greater Mekong region, on of the world's most intensely threatened wildlife hotspots.

Leptobrachium Iunatum frog
This Leptobrachium Iunatum frog is among the new discoveriesImage: Jodi Rowley/WWF/dpa/picture alliance

A mountain-horned dragon. A drought-resistant bamboo. A monkey with fierce white rings around its eyes and a smelly ginger-like flower that can be used in chili sauce.

These are some of the 224 newly documented species in a report published Wednesday by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international conservation group urging world leaders to protect rapidly vanishing habitats.

The authors compiled findings from hundreds of scientists studying wildlife in the Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia — home to some of the most endangered species on the planet — which covers Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

A new species of Popa langur in Myanmar
Fewer than 250 members of this newly documented species are thought to existImage: WWF Myanmar

They described the discoveries as a stark reminder of what humanity stands to lose if it continues to destroy the natural environment.

"Our responses to that extinction crisis is very weak and very slow," said K Yoganand, a wildlife ecologist fighting wildlife crime in the Greater Mekong with the WWF. "We need to treat it as a crisis."

Looming extinctions

Across the planet, wildlife is dying faster and faster. In 2019, the most comprehensive study of life on Earth ever undertaken found that human actions threaten more species with extinction now than ever before. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the United Nations-backed body that authored the report, estimated around one million species already face extinction — many within decades.

But scientists trying to work out how fast species are being killed off face another problem: They don't know how many exist in the first place.

A lot of species are getting lost before they are even documented, said Yoganand. "It is definitely a race against time."

Conservationists setting camera traps in Myanmar
Conservationists are racing to identify and protect species before they are wiped outImage: Naw Eh Hser Wah/WWF-Myanmar

When scientists say they have discovered a new species, they mean they have published a peer-reviewed paper that describes its characteristics. In some cases, the species were already well known to Indigenous groups or the public through media reports. The WWF study does not include smaller lifeforms like algae, insects or fungi. 

The 224 new species in the report, which were documented in 2020, show the region is a "frontline for scientific exploration and a hotspot of species diversity," the authors wrote. The new additions include 155 plants, 35 reptiles, 17 amphibians and 16 fish. There is only one mammal: a new species of Popa langur, a monkey named after the extinct volcano in Myanmar on which it is found.

The Capparis macrantha plant
The Capparis macrantha is a newly discovered shrubby plant found on the mountainous border of Laos and VietnamImage: Soulivanh Lanorsavanh

The first evidence of its existence came from genetic analysis of hundred-year-old specimens in a British museum, which matched up with more recently collected bones from central Myanmar, according to the report. It is marked by bright white rings around its eyes and whiskers that face forwards. Fewer than 250 members of the species are thought to exist. 

The Greater Mekong is also home to better-known species fighting for survival like the tiger and Asian elephant. The region's ecosystems have changed drastically over the last few decades as farms have expanded over forests and wetlands, extractive industries have degraded habitats, and dams have sprung up along the Mekong River, which provides fresh water to more than 60 million people. 

Construction site of a hydropower dam in Laos
Enormous construction projects have thrown ecosystems across the Mekong River Basin into chaosImage: Sinohydro 3/Xinhua/picture alliance

Sustainable development

The IPBES assessment identified 5 key ways in which people have pushed species to the brink of survival: changing habitats, directly exploiting organisms, heating the planet, polluting the land and introducing invasive species.

That loss of wildlife has coincided with leaps in living standards across middle-income countries like those in the Greater Mekong. The share of people living in cities across the five countries has roughly doubled since 1970.

But the threats to nature have also partly been driven by harmful economic incentives in sectors from fishing to forestry to mining, the study found. "It's not like we have to stop development," said Yoganand. "It just needs to be done in a much better way to minimize habitat loss and minimize pollution."

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Ajit Niranjan Climate reporter@NiranjanAjit