In the first of a new spotlight series, I’ll be profiling our planet’s most biodiverse regions. The 2,700 mile Mekong river and its surrounding areas make up the Greater Mekong region and spans across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the southern province of Yunnan in China. Since 1997, over 1500 new species have been discovered by the scientific community, as previously unexplored areas were studied. The variety of habitats it contains are every bit as rich as the wildlife, with ecosystems as diverse as: lush rainforest, dry savannah, wetlands and swamp.
This biological haven is known to support around 1300 species of fish, 1200 bird species, 430 species of mammal, 800 species of reptile and amphibian as well as an estimated 20,000 plant species. Iconic species include the mysterious and almost mythical Saola antelope, which was only discovered by science in 1992, the giant catfish, Indo-Chinese Tiger, Irrawaddy Dolphin, Asian Elephant, Dhole, White-shouldered Ibis, Giant Stingray and Gaur. Much of the Greater Mekong’s flora and fauna remained shrouded in mystery throughout the 20th Century, partly due to the inaccessibility of the terrain, but also because of political instability in the region. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, only recently opened its doors to the western world and so any expedition there usually uncovers a treasure-trove of new discoveries.
However, it’s far from being an untainted paradise, as the ongoing conservation of the wildlife is implemented against the backdrop of rapid socio-economic growth. Forest cover has dropped from 55% during the early 1970s, to just 34% presently. The extinction of the Javan Rhino – confirmed by the WWF in 2011 – is symptomatic of the pressures being placed on the Mekong’s natural resources. The forests are home to the largest tiger habitat in the world, but their numbers have declined from over 1200 in 1998, to just 350 now. The incredible abundance of fish species are also at risk from increasing hydropower development, which can disrupt their migration routes.
The WWF have been at the forefront of documenting the new species of the Greater Mekong, Here’s a link to many of their recent discoveries.