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Environmentalists Issue Warning on Mekong Biodiversity

  • Ron Corben

Sunset over the Mekong River from Don Khone where many locals fear they might be displaced if the dam at nearby Don Sahong goes ahead. (Luke Hunt for VOA News)

Sunset over the Mekong River from Don Khone where many locals fear they might be displaced if the dam at nearby Don Sahong goes ahead. (Luke Hunt for VOA News)

Scientists say the Southeast Asia’s rapid development is driving deforestation in the vital Mekong Subregion, and threatening scores of species in one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. Trafficking in plant and animal wildlife is accelerating the trend, and governments are being pressed to do more to stop it.

In almost two decades, scientists researching biodiversity in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) have uncovered over 2,200 new species: from giant flying squirrels, to fish and even eyeless cave dwelling spiders. From 2012 to 2013, more than 360 new species were discovered and catalogued.

The Mekong Subregion includes China’s Yunnan province, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and is one of the world’s top five areas for biodiversity.

Scientists said decades of economic development, hydropower-dam construction, lax law enforcement and trafficking have taken their toll.

Thomas Gray, a species manager with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Cambodia, said efforts to halt the losses are mixed at best. “There are some successes; for example tigers in Thailand. But there are more failures than successes and that’s the thing that needs to be reversed,” he noted. “We are having small successes in a few places but we’re losing the bigger battle, highlighted political will – getting heads of state supporting conservation; that’s the thing that we need to do.”

The wild tiger has disappeared from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, along with the Asian rhino. Only in Thailand have tiger populations increased to around 230, thanks to renewed conservation efforts.

Threats to wildlife

Forests have been decimated. Forest cover in the past 40 years has declined by nearly one-third with scientists saying just 10 to 20 percent could remain by 2030.

Scientists say that if the rate of illegal trade in wild and endangered species stays at current rates, some 40 percent of South East Asia’s animal and plant species will be wiped out this century.

The U.S.-based environmental watchdog, Freeland Foundation, said in South East Asia the black market in contraband timber, wildlife and marine species is at least worth about $120 million a year.

In Thailand there are signs of success. Anak Pattanavibool, Thai director of the Wildlife Conservation Society said public activism has helped. “A lot of people are aware of conservation, aware of how important (it is) of saving forests, saving wildlife. That’s why you see the movement of people whenever big development projects happen, they would come out and try to stop the large development projects in the forest in Thailand. (Protesting) is becoming a normal trend now,” Anak Pattanavibool stated.

Logging

In Cambodia, logging is a huge threat to species. A new report by U.S.-based group Forest Trends, said in 2013 the government granted concessions that represent 14 percent of Cambodia’s land area.

World Wide Fund for Nature’s Grant Thomas said timber loss is now the leading threat to Cambodia’s biodiversity.

“In Cambodia hundreds of thousands of dollars of timber lying there in the forest and it is something that is going to the highest levels of government unfortunately. Certainly in Lao and Cambodia it’s very difficult to deal with particularly as demand shows no signs of decreasing, particularly in Cambodia and I presume Vietnam and Lao and on to China. It’s a real worry,” Thomas said.

In Myanmar, environmentalists fear the impact on biodiversity of hydro-power dams on the Salween River in north eastern Shan state.

Dams on the lower Mekong River have led to community protests and deepening fears about their impact on a waterway considered critical to the food security of some 60 million people in Southeast Asia.

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