Story | 15 Jun, 2015

On the verge of extinction: A look at endangered species in the Indo-Burma Hotspot

The Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot, which covers Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam, and parts of southern China, is one of the most biologically rich − and highly threatened − places on the globe.

With its high levels of plant and animal endemism, and limited remaining natural habitat, Indo-Burma ranks among the top 10 biodiversity hotspots for irreplaceability and the top five for threat.

The future of much of Indo-Burma’s ecosystems and species hangs in the balance. Only 5% of the area’s natural habitat is considered to remain pristine and nearly 37% of the key biodiversity areas in the region are not under any formal protection.

Indo-Burma is home to many endangered species − some of which have rarely been seen by human eyes. Threats to these species include illegal wildlife trade and loss of habitat. The situation is exacerbated by a lack of political will, resources, incentives for effective law enforcement, conservation planning, and action.

Given its significance, the Indo-Burma Hotspot is a priority area for conservation. A major multi-donor conservation fund, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), is currently operating in the area, led by IUCN which heads CEPF’s Regional Implementation Team in Indo-Burma. The fund is a mechanism that awards grants to civil society organisations which are implementing projects on species and habitat conservation, preventing the illegal wildlife trade and building community empowerment. Its goal is to enhance civil society capacity to support conservation in the Indo-Burma Hotspot.

Conserving and protecting these hotspots leads to gains not just for nature, but also for human communities and economies. Healthy ecosystems provide fundamental inputs to the production of all kinds of goods and services, and they also provide “nature-based solutions” − cost-effective, reliable protection against natural hazards which also contribute to long-term sustainability.

Here’s a look at some of Indo-Burma Hotspot’s rare and threatened species vitally in need of protection:

1. Saola
IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM Status: Critically Endangered

Probably the most iconic species in the Indo-Burma region, the saola or “Asian unicorn” was only discovered in 1992 but is already nearing extinction. Because of its rarity and elusiveness, its current population is unknown; speculative estimates place it anywhere between 70 to 700 individuals.

The saola is found only in the rainforests in the Annamite Mountains of Lao PDR and Viet Nam, and the greatest threat it faces is hunting − the animal is snared as by-catch in the intense pursuit of other species for Chinese medicine or bush-meat trade.

2. Eld’s deer
Red List Status: Endangered

Up until the 1950s, large herds of Eld’s deer subspecies Rucervus eldii siamensis were seen to roam the grasslands of Indo-Burma. But due to intense hunting − for its meat as “medicine,” and as trophies (because of its antlers) − only a few populations now remain in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar, where the species has experienced drastic population declines of up to 90% since the last decade. Eld’s deer is extinct in China, Thailand and Vietnam.

3. Cat Ba langur
Red List Status: Critically Endangered

The Cat Ba langur is found only in northern Viet Nam (in Cat Ba Island) and adjacent southern China, living in the forests among the limestone hills. In 2006, the total population living in Cat Ba Island was 64 individuals, and in 2003 approximately 700-800 individuals were thought to live in areas in southern China. Population trends are in decline − Cat Ba langurs continue to be actively hunted for meat and as “medicine.”

4. Fishing cat
Red List Status: Endangered

Fishing cats are native to parts of South and Southeast Asia, where they are typically found in swamps and marshy areas. They are good swimmers, and unlike most other small cats, may prey primarily on fish rather than small mammals.

Population is believed to be declining because of very infrequent sightings even with the use of camera traps. Destruction of wetlands is the biggest threat, particularly in Southeast Asia where over 45% of protected wetlands and 94% of globally significant wetlands are considered threatened.

5. Giant ibis
Red List Status: Critically Endangered

Cambodia’s national bird, the giant ibis is the largest in its family. Native to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam, its extremely small population has undergone a rapid decline due to hunting, human disturbance and deforestation. In 2012, the population of giant ibis was estimated to be only 345 individuals in total. Trends suggest further decline, particularly with climate change, which is thought to pose a long-term threat to the species.

6. Mekong giant catfish
Red List Status: Critically Endangered

Endemic to the Mekong Basin, the Mekong giant catfish is one of the world's largest freshwater fish, measuring up to three meters in length and weighing in excess of 300 kilograms. Current population size is unknown, but the species has experienced an estimated decline of more than 80% in the past 21 years.

The fish faces extinction primarily due to overfishing − it was historically consumed as high value food fish − but other threats include habitat loss and degradation. Intentional fishing of this species is now prohibited. Captive bred stocks are used in game fishing ponds in Thailand.

7. Spoonbilled sandpiper
Red List Status: Critically Endangered

The spoonbilled sandpiper breeds in Russia, follows a migratory route down the western Pacific coast (North and South Korea and Japan) and spends the winters in tidal mudflats, principally in Southeast Asia. But along its migratory route, the mudflats − where the spoonbilled sandpipers ‘refuel’ for their long distance journey − are being reclaimed and converted to industrial uses. And once they arrive at their wintering grounds, these birds are targeted for subsistence hunting. As a result, fewer and fewer adults are able to return to the breeding grounds and the species now has an ageing and rapidly declining population.

Only around 360-600 spoonbilled sandpipers are thought to remain in the wild, according to 2009/2010 estimates, but this is believed to be on the optimistic side.

8. Red-headed vulture and white-rumped vulture
Red List Status: Critically Endangered

The red-headed vulture and the white-rumped vulture both occur in South Asia and Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, they are principally found in Lao, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Both vultures are historically reported to have had thriving populations: as recently as 1985, the white-rumped vulture was described as "possibly the most abundant large bird of prey in the world." However, since the 1990s, these vultures have experienced catastrophic population declines.

In South Asia, the major cause was the use of diclofenac, a drug used to treat domestic livestock, but fatal to vultures which fed on the livestock remains. In Southeast Asia, the primary reason for its near-disappearance is the lack of available food as wild cattle, pigs, deer etc., become scarcer due to hunting.

9. Sarus crane
Red List Status: Vulnerable

The sarus crane is the tallest flying bird, reaching up to 1.8 metres (six feet) in height. In Southeast Asia there is a small resident population in Myanmar and a separate larger one that breeds in Cambodia and migrates to wetlands in Cambodia and Vietnam. Populations of sarus cranes are decreasing, largely because of the loss of habitat. As large wetland areas are being converted to agriculture or aquaculture, the cranes are left with fewer and fewer areas in which to live, breed and feed.

10. Irrawaddy dolphin
Red List Status: Vulnerable

These dolphins are mainly found in Southeast Asian estuaries and mangrove areas, as well as in river systems. Three subpopulations of the Irrawady dolphin, including those in the Mekong and the Ayeyarwady, are already Critically Endangered and close to extinction. Although they are not directly hunted or caught, they are caught accidentally as by-catch when they become entangled in nets. Habitat loss and degradation are also major threats to this species.