Rhino horn and tiger blood: conservation in the Mekong

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When Australians think of the Mekong they think cheap holidays or Vietnamese restaurants. Biodiversity-wise however, the Mekong is a frontier, a place where biological riches collide with human pressure. This month ten remarkable freshwater worms were described in Thailand, while in 2011 scientists found 126 new species, including five mammals. At the same time the last Vietnamese rhino was shot and declared extinct. The region is at an important moment for developing strategies that include people and environment.

The Mekong River trickles from the Tibetan Plateau through southern China, flowing along the borders of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, at last sprawling through the delta in Vietnam.

More than 300 million people call the “Greater Mekong” home, and the river itself supports the largest freshwater fishery (and the largest freshwater fish) in the world. Conflicts of the past have left their mark, but the region is burgeoning. Millions hope tomorrow’s rice will come a little easier than yesterday’s.

The Greater Mekong is also a global focus for conservation, with astounding biodiversity, acute threats, and big opportunities to make a difference.

Mysterious creatures

The golden age of species discovery in the region is now, with new species found at the rate of several each week. The challenge to describe species before they are lost is a global one, but few creatures embody the difficulty of finding and saving than the Saola.

Distinct and charismatic, the Saola is so enigmatic it was only discovered by science in 1992, and almost nothing is known about it. Difficult to understand and hidden in the high, wet forests of the Annamite Mountains (the “spine” between Vietnam and Laos), the Saola seems to have been intensively hunted for food. It is critically endangered. Out of desperation to learn more about the species, researchers are turning to leech blood to find its traces. Luckily, the Saola is is not in demand for medicine or targeted for trade.

Trade in a deadly cure

The Greater Mekong is a hub for the transit and consumption of wildlife. Vietnam and China are often pinpointed as as key drivers of trade in the region, and the main markets for tiger, elephant and rhino products – suggestions both nations generally downplay. In reality, trade in threatened species is complex over many scales and directions, and is pervasive throughout the region.

Rhinos are a particularly sad story. Last ditch efforts to save the Vietnamese subspecies of Javan Rhinoceros found just one individual remained. This old female was found dead in Cat Tien National Park in April 2010, shot in the leg, horn missing. An icoinc creature extinct in a gunshot, perhaps to treat a hangover. Now only about 32 Javan rhinos remain, in Java.

Traditional medicine is often the culprit for wildlife trade, though many modern practitioners eschew the use of threatened animal parts. Pangolins are traded in high volume for meat and medicinal scales, bears are caught and caged for their medicinal bile, and slow lorises are dried and eaten after childbirth. Demand for wild meats is also increasing in urban areas.

A complex market

Replacing illegal trade with farmed wildlife is vaunted as a possible solution. But wildlife farms may increase trade, and launder wild-caught stock.

Enforcement and education are the standard solutions, but for some wildlife this strategy is too simple. The merit release of birds – a Buddhist custom that brings benefits in the next life – is a threat to many bird species in need of an unusual solution. Though hunting remains a fundamental threat to wildlife, in some remote parts hunting wildlife is the main source of nutrition and income. Meeting socio-economic and environmental needs together is rarely more important than for those who subsist on the forests.

Damming the future?

The waters of the great river are turbulent, with plans afoot for up to 11 dams on the river’s mainstream. Hydropower dams already dot tributaries throughout the basin. Many are concerned that the physical, social and environmental impacts seen in tributary dams will be repeated and amplified on the mainstream.

The four countries of the Lower Mekong Basin – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam – agreed in 1995 to coordinate the planning and management of the river through the formation of the Mekong River Commission. Under the agreement, all four countries must consult and agree on any dam developments on the mainstream. Sadly, this process is in tatters.

Laos – which hopes to power its development with hydropower dollars as the “battery of Asia” – was the first country to trial to consultation process with a proposed dam at Xayaburi, in the north. Despite drawn-out negotiations, agreements to additional impact assessment, and Pythonesque contradictions from within the Lao government, construction is now forging ahead.

The big concerns from Xayaburi are that it will block both sediments and fish. Fish is the key protein for those by the river. It may well be engineering alchemy that any fish passages can be built to accommodate the range of shapes and sizes, and vast numbers of fish that need to pass dam walls on the Mekong, and those measures proposed certainly do not.

Blocking sediments will cause erosion as “hungry water” scours the river bed. With three of the region’s major cities on the banks of the Mekong – Vientiane, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh City – this should be a major consideration.

But Xayaburi is not just a concern for its direct impacts on the river and on the people. Worse is the likely domino effect of providing an ugly example of irresponsible impact assessment and prevention.

Looking ahead

The Greater Mekong is at a historic nexus of meeting the needs of its booming populous and ensuring the future of the environment on which they depend. Similar challenges abound in the region – from the allocation of land, to adapting to the crisis of climate change.

A happy and healthy future for the peoples of the Mekong is one where its lush environment continues to thrive with them. A regional approach is needed to solve many of the big issues, but only partnership with local communities will make change last.

Author Bio: Gerry Ryan is a conservation scientist at the University of Melbourne.

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