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Volume 3 Issue 5 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Living dead haunt Southeast Asia
by David Suzuki PhD

"The living dead" may sound like something borrowed from a horror film, but that's what ecologists are calling species in Southeast Asia whose populations have fallen so low they are doomed to eventual extinction. Urgent action is needed to prevent the majority of others in the region from suffering the same fate.

Ecologists have long been concerned that habitat destruction from logging, agriculture and urbanization is taking a terrible toll on tropical ecosystems, which house the greatest diversity of species (biodiversity) on the planet. But reliable estimates of the number of species being lost have been hard to quantify because scientists are still lacking basic data on species numbers and populations.

To obtain more accurate estimations of species loss in tropical areas, researchers writing in the journal Nature looked at data from the island of Singapore, which has been largely urbanized over the past 200 years. In that time, more than 95 per cent of the original forest cover has been cleared and, based on historical records, at least 28 per cent of the original species diversity has been lost.

However, the researchers point out that reliable records did not exist until after 1870 - when much of the forests had already been removed. To fill in the gaps, they looked at nearby forests in Malaysia. In comparison, Singapore's tiny remaining forests have about 73 per cent fewer species. Of those species that remain, 77 per cent are considered threatened, and more than half are relegated to small reserves. Species such as the banded leaf monkey and the cream-coloured giant squirrel have lost so many of their numbers they will likely become extinct in a few decades - hence the term "living dead."

Researchers say the catastrophic loss of species in Singapore is likely to occur throughout Southeast Asia unless governments take serious steps to address the problem. Already, 60 per cent of Peninsular Malaysia's forests have been cleared and the entire region is expected to lose 74 per cent of remaining habitat to logging, agriculture and urbanization by 2100. If that happens, up to 42 per cent of the region's species could be lost, half of which are found no where else in the world. And these anticipated losses to do not factor in other pressures such as from introduced species, climate change and hunting. The authors describe the situation as a "looming mass extinction."

Tropical forests in other areas of the world are also under intense human pressure. In Africa, logging roads have opened up new areas to hunting, threatening the great apes. In the Brazilian Amazon, recent satellite imaging data has shown that the rate of deforestation there has increased by 40 per cent in the last year. Illegal logging in Indonesia is so bad it threatens to destroy most of the country's lowland forests within the next decade.

The destruction of tropical forests may seem far removed from our lives in the developed world, but these forests provide vital services to all of humanity. They help stabilize the world's climate by storing billions of tonnes of carbon that would otherwise end up in our atmosphere and contribute to global warming; they provide habitat for a diversity of life; they filter water, protect soils, circulate nutrients and much more. Ecologists say that the economic value of conserving these forests far exceeds the profits attained from logging them.

Allowing Southeast Asia to lose almost three quarters of its forests this century is not an acceptable option. The urgency of the situation must be made clear to the public and to our politicians if we are to save thousands of tropical species from the fate of the living dead.

David T. Suzuki PhD, the Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. David has received consistently high acclaim for his thirty years of award-winning work in broadcasting; explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. He is well known to millions as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, The Nature of Things. Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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