A wildlife paradise facing multiple threats
Kanburi pit viper by Clare Shenstone
At Synchronicity Earth we work to support conservation action where it is needed most worldwide. Our overarching objective of slowing the global loss of biodiversity and tackling the extinction crisis leads naturally to a focus on regions where biodiversity is both the most abundant and the most threatened.
To identify these regions, our own research is informed by initiatives such as the Key Biodiversity Areas, WWF Ecoregions and biodiversity “hot spots”. Our expert advisors and partners help us to home in on regions, species and issues which have been relatively underfunded or understudied, and are thus in greater need of support. By developing this regional focus, rather than concentrating efforts on isolated projects, we are also able to foster networks and collaborations between our partners, thereby amplifying our conservation impact.
Southeast Asia is a clear choice of focus when these various aspects are considered. Not only is it spectacular due to its sheer number of species, but a huge amount of these can only be found in one country, on one particular island, or even in just one national park. This site specificity of species is called endemism, and it is Southeast Asia’s stunning levels of endemic species, coupled with rapid and intensive habitat loss, that make it an urgent priority for conservation action (1). This is because a national or even regional extinction of a highly endemic species is ultimately a global extinction – the loss of that species worldwide, forever.
The jewel in the crown
Marine habitats are the jewel in the crown of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity. This region, along with parts of Melanesia, makes up the coral triangle, hailed as the global centre of marine biodiversity. It is home to 76% of all coral species, the greatest diversity of seagrasses in the Indo-Pacific, six out of the world’s seven marine turtle species, and over 2,000 reef fish species, including some of the highest numbers of endemic reef fish species in the world (2). However, it is also the most endangered of the world’s coral reef regions, with 95% of its reefs believed to be threatened (3). Rising demand for fish from local to industrial scales has led to vast overfishing, and destructive practices such as dynamite and cyanide fishing are still rife in the region. On top of this, the systems of inland forests and coastal mangroves which are vital in preventing sediment and pollutants flowing into the oceans are fast disappearing – between 2000 and 2012, more than 100,000 ha of mangroves were lost in Southeast Asia (4).
Considering the terrestrial environment, Southeast Asia has the highest proportion of threatened reptile, bird and mammal species worldwide. This is due mostly to a deadly combination of dramatic habitat loss and direct targeting of animal species for human use. Southeast Asia’s annual rate of deforestation is higher than anywhere else in the tropics, and it has been increasing for the past two decades. (5) Huge increases in rice production, the planting of export crops such as rubber and oil palm, along with the booming demand for Asian timber has driven deforestation to the point where less than half of original forest cover now remains in the region. A report by WWF on the greater Mekong region, encompassing Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, predicted that at current rates of deforestation, only 14% of the remaining forests in the area could be classed as a contiguous habitat, which is vital for supporting most species (6).
The combination of a rapidly swelling human population, diminishing forest area, and greater demand for wildlife as meat, pets or medicinal products, has also caused hunting pressure on wildlife to rocket in Southeast Asia. In Sabah, part of Malaysian Borneo, 108 million animals are hunted for bushmeat each year (7). A recent study suggested that over-hunting is the most severe threat to animal populations in Southeast Asia, and that populations have dropped sharply over the past 30 years (8). In many areas, homemade wire snares are used to indiscriminately catch wildlife, leading to death and maming of non-target species and young animals (9). Southeast Asia has been recognised as a major hub for wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, with species affected ranging from lizards, snakes, birds and endangered trees, to iconic tigers, bears and rhinos.
An Endangered species – one of many
The Kanburi pit viper (Cryptelytrops kanburiensis) is a species that exemplifies the combined threats and challenges to conservation in Southeast Asia. Listed as Endangered on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species®, the pit viper is native to the province of Kanchanaburi in Western Thailand, has a known range of just 3,000km2, and has only been found in five different locations. Its greatest threat is believed to be capture for the illegal international pet trade, and it is likely also affected by a severe loss of habitat. (10) The words “believed” and “likely” in this sentence are the true indicators of the endangerment of the pit viper. Without reliable knowledge of the ecology of this species, let alone the character and intensity of the threats it faces, it is incredibly difficult to protect it. The extent of illegal activity threatening biodiversity in Southeast Asia is staggering, and the vast majority of it takes place unchecked and unrecorded. We are now at a point where many species are being driven to the brink of extinction before we can even understand what is causing their decline.
Although certain countries and issues in Southeast Asia have attracted a lot of conservation attention, poor governance and corruption across the region have limited the impact of many previous interventions. Meanwhile, numerous countries have been overlooked in terms of their need for urgent conservation action.
Working to turn the tide
Synchronicity Earth has partnered with groups who have a long history of working in countries across the region, and who have, over years of experience, developed successful methods for conservation. Whether it is community-based mangrove restoration (Mangrove Action Project) and wetland protection (Mabuwaya), empowerment of local groups against mass development (Living Rivers Siam), vast replanting of forests by local women (Hutan), or ground-breaking work on the protection and reintroduction of pangolins (SVW), these projects show the diversity and strength of local communities in Southeast Asia to make effective, and lasting change for people and the environment.
1 Myers, N., Mittermeier, R. A., Mittermeier, C. G., da Fonseca, G. A. B., Kent, J. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403, 853-858 (2000). – https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v403/n6772/full/403853a0.html
2 The Nature Conservancy, Coral Triangle Facts, Figures, and Calculations – https://ctatlas.reefbase.org/pdf/part%20II%20%20biodiversity%20stats.pdf
3 World Resources Institute, Reefs at Risk Revisited (2011) – https://pdf.wri.org/reefs_at_risk_revisited.pdf
4 Richards, D. R., Friess, D. A. Rates and drivers of mangrove deforestation in Southeast Asia, 2000-2012. PNAS 113, 344-349. – https://www.pnas.org/content/113/2/344.full
5 Sodhi, N. S., Posa, M. R. C., Lee, T. M., Bickford, D., Koh, L. P., Brook, B. W. The state and conservation of Southeast Asian biodiversity. Biodiveristy Conservation 19, 317-328 (2010).
6 World Wildlife Fund, Greater Mekong Report (2013) –