The Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia, through which the Mekong River flows, consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China. The region is home to some of the planet’s most charismatic and endangered wild species, including the tiger, Asian elephant, Irrawaddy dolphin, saola, and Mekong giant catfish—and between 1997 and 2011 an incredible 1,710 new organisms were described by science. “The rate of discovery in the Mekong is almost without equal globally,” said Stuart Chapman, the regional conservation director of WWF.
“That’s attributed to the enormous geographical and climatic range within the region, going from high altitude to dense tropical forests through to some of the richest freshwater in the world. Undoubtedly this region is one of the richest in terms of its biodiversity, but it’s also one of the most threatened.” Adding to the fantastic bestiary of creatures living in the Greater Mekong are new characters such as the Cambodian Tailorbird, Laotian giant flying squirrel, ‘hunch-bat of Vietnam’, an iridescentcoloured rainbow lizard, a fish who is ahead of the reproduction game, the ‘Zorro’- masked water snake, a salmon-coloured orchid and a primitive whiteheaded viper. A skydiving gecko, giant flying frog, “fishzilla” (walking snakehead fish), brightly-coloured bronzeback snake, pufferfish, blind huntsman spider, red-lipped gecko, a fish with “vampire” fangs and a seven metre high carnivorous plant further add to the newly discovered assemblage.
These discoveries, painstakingly identified and recorded by the world’s scientists and compiled here by WWF-Greater Mekong, demonstrate that the region is the frontline for scientific exploration. But they also remind us of what we stand to lose if regional development is not sustainable. The recent extinction of the rhino in the region and the ongoing plight of the tiger, whose numbers in the region may be as low as 250 individuals are poignant reminders of this. In addition, the devastating illicit trade in wildlife is now worth at least 16 billion US dollars annually. Today the region’s forests are being cleared on an industrial scale, mainly for land to produce commodities we all use. Between 1973 and 2009, the Greater Mekong countries lost 42.4 million hectares of forest, 30 per cent of forest cover.
Today the Greater Mekong region forms part of one of the five most threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world. Rapid unsustainable development, including poorly planned infrastructure, uncontrolled and non-transparent extractive activities, and agricultural expansion, as well as the rampant wildlife trade, are profoundly degrading the health of the region’s ecosystems—and consequently, the wellbeing of the millions of people who directly depend on natural resources. Warmer temperatures, and more extreme floods, droughts, and storms as a result of climate change, only exacerbate these pressures. Thorough and consistent management of ecosystems across the Greater Mekong region will help nations adequately address complex, challenging, and regional-scale issues like habitat loss and fragmentation, unsustainable natural resource use, poaching, and climate change.