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The Asian Animal Crisis
Commentary by: Pierre Fidenci, president of Endangered Species International
Special to
March 18, 2010

The United Nation declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB). One of the goals of the IYB is to celebrate the achievements of the Convention of Biological Diversity signed by 192 countries since 1992. But what have we accomplished since 1992? Did we put an end to biodiversity loss? The truth is that there is not much to celebrate at all. Asia is a perfect example where the animal crisis and the loss of biodiversity have worsened over decades.

The first question that should come to mind is: how many species have vanished in Asia because of human activities? Records of recently extinct species in Asia show 71 species that have disappeared in the wild. Examples include the Yunnan lake newt (Cynops wolterstorffi) from China, the Bonin thrush (Zoothera terrestris) from Japan, or the redtailed black shark (Epalzeorhynchos bicolor) from Thailand. The figures may look actually small, considering the colossal number of existing species. However, the inventory of wildlife in Asia and around the world is still at its infantile stage, and therefore, the number of extinct species is probably greatly underestimated.

The Critically Endangered Gigante island frog (Platymantis insulatus) is endemic to two small islands in the Philippines. Photo by: Pierre Fidenci.
Many large animals, like mammals and fishes, are in clear and constant danger of imminent extinction. The 2010 IUCN Red List assessment for Asia includes 2,380 animal species threatened to vanish forever. Most of the world’s threatened mammal species are found in Asia. For example, Asian elephants are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. Between 30,000 and 50,000 subsist in 13 Asian countries.

Eleven primate species are on the brink of extinction in Asia. Amongst them is the Siau Island Tarsier (Tarsius tumpara) which lives on a small volcanic island in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. The Siau Island Tarsier will soon vanish in the blink of an eye because of the habit of locals to eat them as snack food, coupled with habitat destruction.

In the Philippines, the wild-cattle Tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), endemic to the Mindoro Island, has a population size of only 250 individuals, putting it on the brink of extinction (there were 10,000 Tamaraws in the year 1945).

Southeast Asia is incredibly rich in its biodiversity, with a considerable number of endemic species, but under unsustainable and constant threats. For example, the Philippines flourishes with native species, but, for how long? My recent visit at the small Gigante Islands in the Philippines where the endangered endemic Gigante island frog (Platymantis insulatus) is found, illustrates perfectly the urgency to stop species extinction—for good! Many species are left on a tiny range of habitat which is not ideal for them thrive on. The Gigante island frog is now confined on a small space that can be roamed in a full day, within remaining forest outcrops and undisturbed caves.

Siamese crocodile. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
The world's most diverse country for mammals is Indonesia (670 species), but at the same time, it holds a worrisome number of endangered mammals (184 species). China is also on the top of the endangered species list, with 551 species of mammals threatened to become extinct in the near future. Many endangered animals that we are about to lose have fewer than 500 living individuals in the wild and have an extremely limited distribution range of less than 100 square kilometers. The Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) is a good example with fewer than 250 adults surviving in Cambodia.

There is simply an urgent need to save these creatures, just as we are the Earth's very own stewards. If we don't act now, then, no one will, and our future generations will only see them in the glossy pages of a Science magazine.

The large animal crisis is just one side of the story. The small animal crisis is also rampant in Asia, but less studied and exposed to media. Everybody is curious how the endangered panda from China is doing, or how the Javan rhinoceros survives with fewer than 60 individuals living in the wild. What about Alycaeus balingensis, a critically endangered small terrestrial gastropod found in the leaf-litter on the forest floor in Malaysia? It may well be that this unknown gastropod will vanish before the panda if no conservation program is conducted. In 2009 alone, 12 threatened species of mollusk from Malaysia were added to the IUCN Red List of threatened species, highlighting the decline of small animals. All of them lived in a fragile and very specialized habitat within vegetation occurring in rocky expanses of limestone with little surface water. Habitat destruction via limestone quarrying is driving them to extinction.

Bamboo rats and mouse deer in the Luang Prabang morning market in Laos. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
The Asian animal crisis is primarily fueled by continuous habitat loss and the exploitation of species for human use (e.g., food, medicine, ornamental). Global warming will play a greater role into increasing the risk of extinction in the near future, especially if we continue to lose suitable natural habitats like primary rain forests and wetlands. There will be no more room for these species to live and adapt to rapid changes in their surroundings. In addition, illegal poaching and trading of endangered animals is also rampant in Asia. In Indonesia nearly all 230 species on the country's endangered species list can be found at the capital's black market!

Southeast Asia’s deforestation has also been playing a crucial role in species decline and extinction. In the Philippines alone, it is sad to observe that old growth forest composed of dipterocarps is now confined to small pocked areas covering less than five percent of the country. In some regions, like in Mindanao in Southern Philippines, large coconut plantations have replaced beautiful natural forest and most small islands like Busuanga or the larger one like Panay have no primeval forests at all. If present level of deforestation is not halted, Southeast Asia will lose three-quarters of its original forest cover by the end of the century, resulting in colossal species declines and extinctions.

We need to take action NOW! There is an urgent call for us to stop massive species extinction and we can do our part today. By far, protecting and restoring natural forests, wetlands and marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, will be one of the major conservation urgency of the 21st century. A massive plan, like the Marshall Plan, should be put in place for Asia. The lack of resources to set up a multi-billion dollar plan is not lacking, the missing part is the understanding of the urgency for such action.

On-the-ground local communities should be the ones to set some of the conservation agenda, not distant institutions, and successfully protect threatened animals and wild places with the support of scientists. We need to spread conservation awareness and benefits. In Asia, most communities require donor support to build their conservation capacity; however, many conservation programs like preserving the forest can be done effectively at low costs, as long as the local communities understand the invaluable benefits of doing so. The high levels of corruption limit the success of conservation projects, including the creation of an Asian plan to protect and restore life, therefore, the fight against such atrocities should be a quintessential part of any conservation agenda.

Pierre Fidenci is the founder and president of Endangered Species International, a conservation organization supporting projects worldwide, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, the Philippines, Borneo, and Colombia. The group works with many species largely unknown to the public and ignored by other conservation organizations.

Tarsiers are threatened by habitat destruction and in some cases captured for food. Photo by: Pierre Fidenci.

The Asian animal crisis is primarily fueled by continuous habitat loss. In this photo, rainforest was replaced by vast plantations of pineapples by Dole corporation in the Philippines. Photo by: Pierre Fidenci.

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