Biological Goldmine

Researchers estimate there may be as many as 1 trillion species populating the Earth, and every year, we're discovering more. One of the places scientists swarm on the hunt for new, undocumented species is the Greater Mekong subregion (GMS) and for very good reason: the area's 2.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles) are a biological goldmine.

Several rare and endangered species find sanctuary in the ecosystem surrounding the river, which spreads across six countries (Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam). It hosts four of the six largest freshwater fish on the planet and is the largest inland fishery in the world, capable of generating $3 billion worth of fish a year, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Greater Mekong Subregion. Conservation International.

Between 1997 and 2015, 2,409 new species were found in the zone, and around two new species are discovered there every week. Last year, a survey of the area yielded the discovery of 163 new species, including a rainbow-headed snake, a dragon-like lizard, and a newt closely resembling a Klingon from "Star Trek" that was aptly named the Klingon newt. The new haul consists of nine amphibians, 11 fish, 14 reptiles, 126 plants, and three mammals.

Klingon (left). Image: Cristiano Betta, Flickr; Klingon newt (right). Image: Porrawee Pomchote.

Ecosystem Under Threat

In 1992, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) assisted in solidifying a subregional economic cooperation program between the GMS countries in an effort to implement priority projects in different sections, including environmental conservation. Despite this, the GMS is under threat of industrial development, and the project data sheet for ADB’s GMS Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Project, which upholds the preservation of forest lands, only lists three of the six GMS countries as participants: Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Deforestation, illegal logging, and poaching are becoming rampant, adding to the deterioration caused by climate change. According to Conservation International, over a hundred dams are either being planned or already being constructed as we speak — even in the countries participating in ADB’s Corridors project. "It’s an amazing place. We depend on it. But we’re also changing it — and not always for the better," Conservation International says.

With our planet currently in the midst of its sixth mass extinction event, we must do what we can to ensure biodiverse areas like the GMS survive as long as possible, if not for the sake of our ecosystem, then for humanity — one of these species we discover there could be the key to solving problems like cancer or antibiotic resistance.

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