When the warning signs are so dismal, these creatures great and small give us hope.

By Lee Poston — Communications Advisor for WWF-Greater Mekong

©FanPengfei

Let’s face it, the news is often not good when it comes to the state of our planet. Global warming continues its march to the top of the thermometer. Roads, rail lines, mega-dams and mines lay mile after mile of concrete across landscapes, cutting deep, permanent scars into forests, deserts and grasslands. And wildlife traffickers ply their trade from Africa to Asia to Latin America, setting millions of cheap snares that trap anything in their path, often to feed an unquenchable desire for the newest, prettiest, most unusual animal adornment.

The recently released Living Planet Report says that there has been a 60 percent decline in population size of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians in just over 40 years. For freshwater species, many of them found in the Mekong region, the news is even worse — an 83 percent decline since 1970.

Simply put, it’s hard out there for a critter.

Yet, somehow, some way, nature finds a way to hang on. New species continue to be discovered at an amazing rate. Thousands of animals previously unknown to science are found by heroic scientists who plunge headlong into often inhospitable terrain in search of what new wonders our planet has to offer.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Greater Mekong Region, comprising Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. In the past 10 years, 2681 new species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and vascular plants have been discovered in this heavily populated region. If one added in newly discovered insects, the number would jump to the tens of thousands. The most recent report, New Species on the Block, documents the 157 species discovered in 2017.

©PipatSoisook

Take the bat discovered in Myanmar, whose spiked hair bears a likeness to the frosted tips of Lance Bass from 90s band *NSYNC; or the tiny toad with sharp horns discovered in an “elfin” forest in Vietnam and nicknamed “The Toad from Middle Earth.”

©M. SUMONTHA

Then there’s a leaf-toed gecko from Thailand’s Khao Sam Roi Yot, or Mountain of Three Hundred Peaks, which has two distinctive ‘racing stripes’ from its snout to the tip of its tale. Or a pancake-shaped catfish found in the fast-flowing cold water in Myanmar’s remote Hponkan Razi Wildlife Sanctuary.

These discoveries bring forth feelings of joy and anxiety. The newly discovered thismia herb species from Laos is already endangered due to its habitat being leased out for limestone mining. Myanmar’s Salween River Basin Mud Snake is threatened by the development of its habitat and agricultural expansion. Immediately following its discovery, the Skywalker Hoolock Gibbon was listed as one of the top 25 most endangered primates on the Planet.

There is hope though. In 2020 world leaders have the opportunity to gather in China to negotiate a Global New Deal for Nature and People during the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. This roadmap is a critical step in global efforts to reverse the tragic downward trend of biodiversity loss. A strong deal and commitment from governments to safeguard their natural heritage will mark a turning point and result in concrete actions to protect species and their habitats.

In another year a new tally of Greater Mekong species discoveries will be released and with luck, it will reveal dozens more creatures both weird and wonderful and previously unknown to science. The fact that so many species, including mammals, are still being discovered speaks volumes about the resilience of nature and the hope for the future. But the clock is ticking and we are in an epic race against time to save these newly minted species before they are lost forever.

©NIKOLAY A. POYARKOV

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