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Mekong species on the brink

Mekong species on the brink

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The elusive Oligodon deuvei (left), a shy snake that has been spotted in Pursat province; the technicoloured, felinesque Cat Ba leopard gecko (centre) found in North Vietnam and Musa rubinea (right), a wild banana found exclusively on the Myanmar–China border. These are just a few of 163 newly discovered species now under threat from climate change in the Greater Mekong region, a new report states.

Climate change could kill off scores of newly discovered flora and fauna: report.

A secretive half-metre-long snake, a technicoloured gecko that looks like it comes from another planet and a fanged frog that eats birds for breakfast are among 163 new species discovered in the Greater Mekong region last year that are already threatened with extinction because of the changing climate, a new report warns.

Due to be released today, the report from conservation NGO WWF warns that the effects of climate change could wipe out many of the species, which include 100 plants, 28 fish, 18 reptiles, 14 amphibians, two mammals and a bird that would rather walk than fly.

The report comes as Foreign Minister Hor Namhong prepares to raise the issue of climate change at the 64th United Nations general assembly, where he will call for international support for Cambodia’s fledgling environmental movement.

“[Hor Namhong] will ask industrial nations to reduce pollution as much as possible and request that those countries help poorer countries that are impacted by climate change,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said Thursday.

The previously unknown flora and fauna were found in areas adjacent to the Mekong River: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and China’s Yunnan province. The region, which the WWF describes as “one of the world’s last biological frontiers”, has yielded discoveries of more than 1,000 new species in the past decade.

In Cambodia, the half-metre-long snake Oligodon deuvei has proved so elusive that researchers have yet to confirm how far afield it is found.
Boasting prominent “blade-like fangs” and a rust-coloured stripe running the length of its body, it has been spotted in Pursat province. Other findings in Cambodia include another snake, a catfish and a tiny herring that measures just a couple of centimetres in length.

The report coincides with a dire warning issued by the WWF ahead of UN climate talks due to start next week in Bangkok. The organisation said
rising sea levels would severely affect many of the new species.

“Some species will be able to adapt to climate change, but many will not, potentially resulting in massive extinctions,” Stuart Chapman, director of the WWF Greater Mekong Programme, said in a statement. “Rare, endangered and endemic species like those newly discovered are especially vulnerable because climate change will further shrink their already restricted habitats.”

Conservationists warned on Thursday that, as a post-conflict nation, the Kingdom lacks the resources to fight climate change on its own. Tin Ponlok, project coordinator at the climate change office of the Ministry of Environment, said: “Cambodia is one of 49 countries that the UN considers as least-developed countries. This group … is the most vulnerable because they do not have enough resources such as money, technology, human resources and infrastructure to solve climate change.”

In the past, Cambodia has been hamstrung by “a severe lack of capacity to conserve wildlife”, according to the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation in Cambodia. The centre notes it was not uncommon to find park directors incapable of naming more than 10 species found in their area.

The level of environmental awareness in the Kingdom is improving – albeit slowly, according to Emily Woodfield, country director in Cambodia for the conservation NGO Fauna and Flora International (FFI).

“The capacity has improved immensely in the last 10 years,” Woodfield said. “We’re at the point now that there’s a new generation of budding conservationists in Cambodia who, hopefully, in the future can take over the role that international NGOs are currently playing.

“[Environmental conservation] needs to be driven by Cambodians. Otherwise, it feels very much like Westerners are coming in and telling [Cambodians] what to do in their country. It shouldn’t be like that,” Woodfield said.

Since 2006, FFI has partnered with the Royal University of Phnom Penh to produce the country’s first postgraduate qualification in biodiversity conservation.

Eight students have so far successfully completed their masters’ degrees, and another five are expected to graduate by next year. They are already filling positions in Cambodia’s fledgling environmental sector.

“The change is slow, but there is a change,” Woodfield said.

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