Cantor’s Giant softshell turtle, thought to be extinct in Cambodia since 2003 has been rediscovered in a section of the Mekong River almost untouched by humans.
The discovery was one of a raft of species new to the region, 24 in all, and a previously unknown “corpse plant” notable for emitting an odour of decaying flesh.
The study area is home to a near-pristine region of tall riverine forests, waterways and island archipaelagos, and is described by scientists as including one of the last suitable freshwater habitat for the critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin.
The findings are the result of a series of surveys jointly conducted by WWF Cambodia, the Fisheries Administration (FiA) and Forestry Administration (FA) of the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) in 2006/7.
The most exciting area surveyed was a 55 kilometre stretch of river located in north-eastern Cambodia, referred to as the “Central Section”, which is a sanctuary for many vulnerable fauna populations, 36 of which are listed as threatened under the IUCN Red List.
“Unlike many other mainstream sections of the Mekong in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam, this particular part of the river remains relatively untouched by human activities,” said Richard Zanre, WWF Freshwater Program Manager. This region, he added, used to be one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge and was off-limits to local and foreign agencies until as late as 1998.
However, the “Central Section” is rapidly shrinking. Cambodia’s new era of peace is leading to migration of communities to areas previously off-limits due to security concerns.
Unregulated hunting, fishing and logging are the greatest threats to the area as the number of settlers to the region has increased rapidly in the previous decade. Local communities are already reporting that catches of fish, turtles, large mammals and lizards are already declining.
Future threats may arise from further infrastructural development of the region, such as dam and road construction. Two dams have been proposed in the study area, just outside the Central Section, and would massively disrupt the delicately balanced ecosystems in the area.
Like many developing countries, Cambodia must balance the needs of a growing population with conservation. Fortunately, the government is sympathetic to these concerns;
“The Royal Government of Cambodia recognises the importance of maintaining the Mekong’s resources for biodiversity, national food security and development, and reflect this need in the targets of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan of 2002 and Cambodia’s Millennium Development Goals,” said Seng Teak, WWF Country Director.
“Documenting Mekong’s biodiversity and natural resources is a critical first step is to preserving them.”
Having worked with the government closely on these surveys, WWF Cambodia has sought to get the “Central Section” designated as a special management site, ensuring that the region’s plant and animal life are integrated into the governments national biodiversity strategy and afforded adequate protection.
WWF would like to see all lands in the central section divided into two zones – one a protective zone, and the other a multiple use zone that would help to support livelihoods of local communities.
Coming so shortly after the discovery of over one thousand new species in the Mekong River basin from 1997 to 2007, this study has proved the value of protecting the region, while also serving as an important contribution to the mapping of Cambodia’s biological diversity, key to the formulating of effective management programs in the area.
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