The Greater Mekong region is already home to some of the most iconic species in the world, but every year this list grows longer as more and more scientists head to the region to climb mountains, wade through rivers, and muddy their boots in search of the mysteries that nature is still hiding. At the swift pace of at least two species discovered per week on average, scientists are reminding us of all the creatures that coexist with the 237 million people who also call this region home.
In 2016, researchers introduced us to 115 new mammals, amphibians, reptiles and plants found throughout the five countries of the Greater Mekong region. From a fierce crocodile lizard to a not-so-beautiful horseshoe bat to a fluffy mole, in total three mammals, two fish, 11 reptiles, 11 amphibians, and 88 plants were described for the first time.1 This brings the total number of news species of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians discovered in the region between 1997 and 2016 to 2,524.
While it’s amazing to see the diversity of species being discovered every year, many of these species are under direct threat from human activity. Fish and forest species are under mounting pressure from infrastructure development such as roads and hydropower dams, while rare, edible or charismatic species such as the crocodile lizard and snail-eating turtle are targeted by poachers for the pet and meat trade.
WWF’s most recent Living Planet Report found that by 2020, global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles could have declined by two thirds in just 50 years.2 The report shows how people are overpowering the planet for the first time in Earth’s history, threatening iconic species, including those in the Greater Mekong region, such as the Irrawaddy Dolphin and tiger. The solutions proposed in the Living Planet Report echo the sentiments of the fearless scientists who discovered these species: we must recognize the importance of global biodiversity and prioritize the protection of the ecosystems in which these threatened species live.
If we can put a stop to the exploitation of species for human consumption and the destruction of their habitats, we can ensure that this incredible rate of species discovery--and the increased scientific understanding that goes with it--can continue for generations to come. As Dr. Pipat Soisook, part of the discovery team for the bat species Rhinolophus monticolus, described protecting the landscapes of the Greater Mekong, “with [this protection] we can protect other animals who live in the forest as well, where there are surely more unknown species awaiting!3”
Is it a crocodile? A lizard? A dragon?
The crocodile lizard is a medium-sized lizard native to remote freshwater habitats in evergreen forests in South China and Northern Vietnam. It was only discovered to live in Vietnam in 2003 by Prof. Dr. Thomas Ziegler and his research team, and in 2016 they were able to definitively publish that the Vietnamese population is a separate subspecies.4
But the future of the Vietnamese crocodile lizard is in danger. Heavily threatened by habitat destruction, coal mining and collection for the pet trade, the population in Vietnam is estimated to be fewer than 200 individuals. “This is terrifyingly low,” says Prof. Dr. Ziegler, “Fortunately, based on the long-term research of our German-Vietnamese team, we could generate data over the past few years that have helped to include the species for the first time on the IUCN Red List in 2014 (as Endangered) and that were the basis to elevate it to CITES Appendix I in 2016.5”
So what can be done right now to protect this incredible lizard from extinction? The research team is working on proposals for wildlife corridors and new reserves within its range, as well as supporting protected areas like Tay Yen Tu Reserve in Vietnam in improving ranger work and conservation activities. They are also developing a breeding program at the Melinh Station for Biodiversity of the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in Hanoi, Vietnam and at the Cologne Zoo in Germany. They’ve even worked with artist Christian Niggemann to develop a comic strip featuring “Shini,” the crocodile lizard, to explain to school children at the Melinh Station the importance of the lizards and the need to protect them. “We hope, with this combination of in situ and ex situ measures, we will have a chance to prevent this enigmatic and beautiful lizard from extinction.” -Prof. Dr. Ziegler
Not all new species discoveries happen on field expeditions in remote jungles. One of the worst places to happen upon an undiscovered species? For sale in a local market.6
After finishing a meeting in Udon Thani, Thailand, Dr. Montri Sumontha wandered over to the local market to look at the fish and fresh foods. He noticed some snail-eating turtles, but the ones in front of him didn’t match any of the species he could recall. After spotting it again at a different market and confirming with the seller that they were caught in a nearby canal, he purchased a few in order to confirm his suspicions. “I compared the turtle with a closely related species, M. macrocephala, and many parts of both turtles were different, such as marking, color, shape of shell, head and scales, and no known overlapping of the distributions of each species of turtles made me confident that this was a new species,7” said Dr. Sumontha.
As far as what’s next for the species, Dr. Sumontha says it needs greater protection if it is going to survive. “I have collected data and information on human threats to wildlife, such as growth of infrastructure, dikes and dams, which has led to turtle populations declining in Thailand. Protection of turtles needs to be emphasized in Thai law as soon as possible.”
Poaching for bushmeat or the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade puts significant pressure on the region’s wildlife, meaning many species could be lost before they are even discovered. The illegal wildlife trade is decimating wildlife populations across the Greater Mekong, especially in the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet. This criminal trade threatens wildlife across Asia and into Africa. A recent WWF report on the extent of illegal wildlife trade in the Golden Triangle highlighted the top ten most wanted species, the driving forces behind the trade and what can be done to stop it. Learn more
Trekking through the evergreen forests of the mountains of Thailand, Dr. Pipat Soisook knew immediately that the bat species he had stumbled upon was a new species. It wouldn’t be until 10 years later that he could finally share that discovery with the rest of the world.8
Horseshoe bats are named for their distinctive facial structures--known as noseleafs--that are shaped like horseshoes. A slightly different shaped noseleaf, which is used in the bat's echolocation, makes this species unique and has led some to liken it to a character from Star Wars. Some specimens that Dr. Soisook and his team collected had a slight yellow color to their noseleafs that was their first hint that they should explore further to see if it was a new discovery. After thorough data collection and genetic testing, they were finally able to publish their findings. “Fortunately we have a wonderful network of researchers across Southeast Asia, actually across the world, to support us and share with us the materials. It took us 10 years though from the first specimen collected until it is eventually named. Therefore, this means a lot to me once it has been published,3” said Dr. Soisook.
Because the species is only currently known to live in a few localities in Laos and Thailand and only a handful of specimens have been recorded, it may be at risk of habitat loss. As a forest-dwelling species, it needs primary forest to survive, but Soisook is hopeful that as more habitat is protected, the effects on species will multiply. “It is crucial for us to protect their habitat, and with that we can also protect other animals who live in the forest as well!”
The limestone karst forests of northern Vietnam harbor a remarkable amount of endemic and rare species, and one of the most recent additions to this list is Odorrana mutschmanni.9 The vibrantly colored frog was discovered among the karst forest of Ha Lang District, an area known by scientists to be home to many not-yet-discovered vertebrate species. A research team led by Dr. Truong Nguyen discovered the frogs perched on boulders and in shallow ponds in a small section of the forest.
“The discovery of new species not only improves our knowledge about biodiversity but also highlights the conservation value of the limestone karst forest. Since 2012, we have described five new species from the karst forest of Cao Bang Province,10” says Dr. Nguyen. But because of the relatively small range of frog species in this part of Vietnam, they are extremely vulnerable to any kind of environmental degradation. According to Dr. Nguyen’s team, forests in Cao Bang Province are currently threatened by quarrying for cement and road construction, expanding agriculture, and illegal timber logging. They suggest that the establishment of a new protected area should be considered by provincial authorities to protect the remaining karst forests and biodiversity in northeastern Cao Bang Province. In the meantime, assessing the IUCN status of the species is the next step in working to protect it.
Do you know what a loach is?
A loach is a type of fish known for having long bodies and bold stripes, but according to Dr. Joerg Bohlen, not a lot is known about how diverse this group of fish is. “Finding a new species is always exciting, and since we work in loaches we have this sensation regularly because there are plenty of undescribed species in loaches,11” he says. Dr. Bohlen was part of a research team focused on freshwater fish diversity in Cambodia as a part of a partnership between the University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia and the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, Czech Republic. While observing a stream in Bokor National Park in Kampong Province, Cambodia, the team immediately recognized that this species possessed characteristics different than those already described by science.12
“I think each species described adds to our understanding of the biogeography of the region,” said Dr. Bohlen. “A species like Schistura kampucheensis, with its particular distribution area, points to a certain isolation of the lower Mekong region.” He theorizes that the species is relatively widely distributed throughout the country, indicating that its population may be stable for the time being. They have only been found in smaller streams and not in the mainstream of any larger rivers in the country, many of which see detrimental effects on wildlife due to large hydropower dams and agricultural runoff. “As long as there is no deforestation, these streams should be safe for a while.”
Not all species discovered in 2016 are under threat. One effective strategy used by mole species to stay safe: go underground!
Dr. Alexei Abramov and his team at the Joint Vietnam-Russian Tropical Research and Technological Centre in Vietnam have been studying the underestimated diversity of small mammals in Southeast Asia since 2002. They have found that mole species in particular have managed to maintain stable populations and escape threats from poaching by staying out of sight of human predators. Abramov says that the combination of disinterest of poachers and populations existing inside national parks and nature reserves has kept the moles safe.13
The team did extensive genetic research to determine that these two mole species were distinct from similar species in the area, finding that the network of streams and rivers in northern Vietnam created geographic separation that has led to the divergence of unique species.14 “These new data are very important for understanding the history and formation of Indochinese mammal fauna,” said Abramov. They hope that research will continue so that the full diversity of small mammals in this region can be realized.
The Greater Mekong is simultaneously one of the most biologically rich regions on Earth and one of the most threatened by environmental destruction. Years like 2016, in which we hear about 115 species for the first time, could soon be a thing of the past if we don’t start prioritizing the protection of the natural world.
One of the biggest threats to the habitats that many of these species rely on is infrastructure development. Every year, more and more new roads are criss-crossing the region, cutting through previously intact forests and trapping animals like elephants and tigers that require large tracts of land to roam. A 2016 WWF report on the effects of road construction on tiger habitats projected 11,000 km of roads being planned in Asia, which will severely fragment existing habitats for tigers and other animals.
Dams are also set to cause major disruptions to the habitats of thousands of freshwater species. With 204 dams currently being planned or constructed in rivers throughout the region,15 freshwater ecosystems are being fragmented and land habitats downstream robbed of crucial sediment flows. “Rivers in the Greater Mekong and the critical services and resources they provide are threatened by a host of poorly planned and coordinated development projects that threaten not only the ecosystem, but also the economy and the livelihoods of millions of people,” says Marc Goichot, Water Lead for WWF-Greater Mekong. “We must realize that rivers connect the wildlife and the people of this region. If we destroy them, we not only destroy the wildlife but ourselves as well.”
But perhaps the most immediate and disturbing threats to wildlife in the region are poaching for trade as pets, food and medicine. Both the crocodile lizard and the snail-eating turtle from this year’s report were found to be at risk of poaching for trade while countless other species populations have been decimated in the region for this reason. A recent WWF report highlighted the scope of the issue in the Golden Triangle, the region where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet that has become notorious for open trade in endangered species. A major driver of the trade is tourists from China and Vietnam traveling to areas such as MongLa and Tachilek in Myanmar, and border areas such as Boten and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos. Once in these areas they consume wildlife products such as tigers, bears and turtles and purchase ivory and endangered animal skins often in open view and with no fear of any consequences..
As we discover new species that could tempt poachers, we must be proactive in our approach of increasing habitat protection and ranger capacity in order to prevent more species like the snail-eating turtle from being found in markets rather than being seen in the wild. And we need to urge governments to close markets that sell endangered species and ignore international laws and regulations against such sales.
“Even as threats to these species loom, it is important to recognize the value of these discoveries to our broader understanding of the natural world around us,” says Stuart Chapman, Regional Representative for WWF-Greater Mekong. “This region is home to both incredible wildlife and incredible communities of people. We need to find a way forward so that both of these groups can live together harmoniously.”
A key to protecting these unique species is policy work at the national and regional level that reaches across borders to cooperatively save these remarkable species and ecosystems. WWF is working at all levels, from communities on the ground to businesses to governments and policy-makers, to ensure that we come together to find solutions to these globally significant problems and protect the Greater Mekong’s wildlife for generations to come.
Each new species discovery teaches us a little bit more about the wildlife of the region and the habitats they call home, but it also gives us one more small reason to value the natural world. These scientists act as a voice for species, from the smallest of flowers to the largest of jungle cats, whose lives depend on human action. “If we don’t come together and decide that their lives are worth saving,” says Chapman, “the day when there are no species left to discover will come sooner than we think.”
1. There is often a long time between a new species discoveries and their acceptance by the scientific community as a new species. Therefore, this report documents all species described in peer reviewed scientific journals between January 1 2016 and December 31 2016. The report does not include invertebrates as there would be too many discoveries to document in a given year.
2. WWF-International. 2016. Living Planet Report. Accessed 18 December 2017.
3. Soisook, P. Personal communication.
4. Van Schingen, M., M. D. Le, H. T. Ngo, C. T. Pham, Q. Q. Ha, T. Q. Nguyen, T. Ziegler. 2016. “Is there more than one Crocodile Lizard? An Integrative Taxonomic Approach Reveals Vietnamese and Chinese Shinisaurus crocodilurus Represent Separate Conservation and Taxonomic Units.” Der Zoologische Garten, 85 (5): 240-260.
5. Ziegler, T. Personal communication.
6. Sumontha, M., T. R. Brophy, K. Kunya, S. Wiboonatthapol, & O. S. G. Pauwels. 2016. “A New Snail-Eating Turtle of the Genus Malayemys Lindholm, 1931 (Geoemydidae) from Thailand and Laos.” Taprobanica, 8 (1): 1-9.
7. Sumontha, M. Personal communication.
8. Soisook, P., S. Karapan, M. Srikrachang, A. Dejtaradol, K. Nualcharoen, S. Bumrungsri, S. S. L. Oo, M. M. Aung, P. J. J. Bates, M. Harutyunyan, M. M. Bus, & W. Bogdanowicz. 2016. “Hill forest dweller: a new cryptic species of Rhinolophus in the ‘pusillus group’ (Chiroptera: Rhinolophidae) from Thailand and Lao PDR.” Acta Chiropterologica, 18 (1): 117-139.
9. Pham, C. T., T. Q. Nguyen, M. D. Le, M. Bonkowski, & T. Ziegler. 2016. “A new species of Odorrana (Amphibia: Anura: Ranidae) from Vietnam.” Zootaxa, 4084 (3): 421-435.
10. Nguyen, T. Personal communication.
11. Bohlen, J. Personal communication.
12. Bohlen, J., M. Petrtyl, P. Chaloupkova, & C. Borin. 2016. “Schistura kampucheensis, a new species of loach from Cambodia (Teleostei: Nemacheilidae).” Ichthyol. Explor. Freshwaters, 26 (4): 353-362.
13. Abramov, A. Personal communication.
14. Zemlemerova, E. D., A. A. Bannikova, V. S. Lebedev, V. V. Rozhnov, & A. V. Abramov. 2016. “Secrets of the Underground Vietnam: An Underestimated Species Diversity of Asian Moles (Lipotyphla: Talpidae: Euroscaptor).” Proceedings of the Zoological Institute RAS, 320 (2): 193-220.
15. WLE Mekong. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2017, from https://wle-mekong.cgiar.org/maps/
Report written and designed by Mallory Graves.
Special thanks to Lee Poston, Kayleigh Ghiot, and all the scientists who contributed to this report.
Published in 2017 by WWF-World Wide Fund for Nature
(also known as World Wildlife Fund)
Text © WWF 2017, all rights reserved