Southeast Asia is in the grip of a biodiversity crisis

Southeast Asia is in the grip of a biodiversity crisis

Southeast Asia is in the grip of a biodiversity crisis
Rich in wildlife, Southeast Asia includes at least six of the world’s 25 ‘biodiversity hotspots’ — the areas of the world that contain an exceptional concentration of species, and are exceptionally endangered. The region contains 20% of the planet’s vertebrate and plant species and the world’s third-largest tropical forest. Additionally, the region has an extraordinary rate of species discovery, with more than 2,216 new species described between 1997 and 2014 alone.

Habitat loss
However, Southeast Asia’s biodiversity is under serious threat; some parts of the region are projected to lose up to 98% of their remaining forests in the next nine years. It’s also thought to be the world’s most threatened region for mammals. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Southeast Asia has some of the highest rates of deforestation on the planet, having lost 14.5% of forests in the last 15 years.

Some areas, such as Philippines, have lost up to 89% of their original forest cover. This loss is rendered especially stark using recent advances in satellite imagery like Google Earth timelapse, which shows that many regions have been transformed from pristine forest to agriculture within the last decade or two. Forest loss is one of the major drivers of species loss in the region, and pulp-paper, rubber and oil palm production are the main drivers of forest clearance.

Dams and mining
Southeast Asia also has more dams planned than any other part of the planet. Though often looked at as “green power”, dams lead to a loss of biodiversity and undermine rural economies through the loss of livelihoods. There are currently 78 dams planned for the Mekong Delta. If built, they are projected to reduce the number of migratory fish by 20% in the Mekong, in addition to flooding essential habitats and causing regional droughts. The Mekong has the highest freshwater diversity in the world, and the potential extinction of so many species represents a global catastrophe.

The drainage of Asia’s wetlands presents a further set of dangers, particularly due to their importance to more than 50 million migratory wading birds that depend on them for migration and breeding. Around 80% of Southeast Asian wetlands are threatened by conversion to agricultural land or development by drainage. Up to 45% of intertidal wetlands have already been lost. This has so far caused population reductions of up to 79% in some wading species.

Mining is another often overlooked issue that poses a significant threat to biodiversity, especially to karsts (limestone outcrops and caves), which cover around 800,000 sq km of Southeast Asia. Each of these ecosystems are known to harbour more than 10 species not found anywhere else on the planet. As karsts are under-represented in protected areas there is no way of knowing how many species go extinct annually as a consequence.

Hunting and trade
Another threat to the region’s biodiversity is the illegal wildlife trade. Worth approximately US$20 billion annually, it’s the fourth-biggest illegal trade in the world. In Southeast Asia, hunting represents the greatest threat to the future survival of many species, with few native mammals of over two kg surviving outside protected areas. Hunting represents a threat to all species, with high-value species sought and traded by criminal cartels and smaller species traded for medicine, food or sport.
Trade in wildlife in Asia can be grouped into three main types: for medicinal purposes, for status or for the pet, zoo and aquarium trades. While celebrities have campaigned for species that are targeted for status and ornamentation many others have failed to get the attention needed to prevent over-exploitation.

Though dedicated researchers and conservationists are working to prevent these issues, Southeast Asia will see the extinction of many endemic species in the coming decades. The question of how many will remain depends on the success of conservation and sustainability interventions.