Southeast Asian biodiversity threatened with disaster

Trends in Ecology & Evolution article asserts that region could lose three quarters of its forests by 2100.

London, 10 December 2004 -Southeast Asia is facing a crisis in biodiversity. Navot Sodhi and colleagues, writing in the December issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, warn that, if the present levels of deforestation continue, Southeast Asia could lose three quarters of its forests and up to 42% of its biodiversity by 2100. They call for action by governments to limit the rate of deforestation, improve the protection of endangered species and provide economic incentives for conservation if this disaster is to be averted.

Three plant and eight animal species have been listed as ‘extinct’ in Southeast Asia by the International Union of Conservation of Natural Resources (IUCN). This figure is likely to grow because many native species of the region, for example, rare long-lived trees might persist as ‘living dead’ and are doomed to extinction owing to isolation caused by the fragmentation of habitats. The numbers of species that are either ‘critically endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’ ranges from 20 to 686 for plants, six to 91 for fish, seven to 116 for birds and five to 147 for mammals, and the loss of many of these populations are likely to result in global extinctions because of the high proportion of endemic species in this region.

The main cause of worldwide biodiversity loss is the conversion of natural habitats to other land uses. There has been large-scale deforestation since 1800s, as a result of agricultural expansion, to meet the global demand for rice and since the 1950s because of the demand for Asian timber. Currently, less that half of the original forests of Southeast Asia remain. Deforestation causes habitats to be reduced leading to smaller wildlife populations. “If the current rate of deforestation continues, it will result in massive biotic extinctions. Our estimates show that a quarter of forest species may be wiped out by 2100,” said Navjot Sodhi from the University of Singapore and the lead author on the paper.

The authors believe that, while it would be difficult, it is not impossible, to slow the rate of deforestation. Sodhi believes that all timber from the region that is exported should be certified and that biologists should be involved in this certification process. Barry Brook, from the Charles Darwin University in Australia, a co-author, said that we need “better education of local people regarding the long-term value of the forests if retained, versus the immediate benefit of gaining income through cash from timber sales and conversion of often marginal land for agriculture”. He added “Recent work has shown that the long term benefit, in terms of ecosystem services and sustainable use of wildlife, usually vastly outweighs the short term benefits of clearance”. Adding that, “It is just that the short term benefits are more immediately tangible and thus obvious”.

Other threats to biodiversity come from forest fires, hunting for bushmeat and the trade in wildlife. In Malaysia, an estimated 2.6 million animals are shot and 23,500 tons of wildlife meat are consumed annually. In 2000, the net legal export of lizard and snakeskins from Indonesia was 29.4% and 28.2% of global exports, respectively. Even Singapore – a highly urbanized country – is an active trader is wildlife and wildlife products, with a total net export of 7093 live animals and 301,905 animal skins. “Protection for most endangered animals in Southeast Asia is not adequate, governments should educate people about the endangered species so that poaching can be reduced” said Sodhi. He suggested that, “Alternative employment opportunities should be provided for native people so that there is less need to poach the endangered species”. Brook added, “Stronger incentives to conserve, including monetary payments linked to proper auditing of reserve quality, will likely be more effective in solving this issue than more stringent policing and greater fines”.

What’s more, the impact on the biodiversity of Southeast Asia is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg owing to the paucity of research data. Research in Southeast Asia has been neglected in comparison to other tropical regions – with scientists often studying mammals rather that other important taxa. “One reason for this could be lack of trained biologists and funding to carry out research. Permit applications in some countries are also not very conducive for foreign scientists to do research” said Sodhi. The conservation status of species in the region needs to be precisely assessed, and the response of these key organisms to environmental change needs to be examined. “We need a more coherent research agenda for the region, rather than just piecemeal local studies of impacts” concluded Brook.

Given that many of the drivers of biodiversity loss are issues that transcend national boundaries, any realistic solutions will need to involve a multi-national and multi-disciplinary strategy.

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Trends in Ecology & Evolution is a forum for all aspects of current research in ecology, conservation, genetics and evolution. Every issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution contains concise, informed and timely reviews that synthesise for a non-specialist readership current topics in these fields. For more information on the journal contact the Editor, Katrina Lythgoe, at

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