Landmark Protection for Threatened Invertebrates
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Endemic pseudoscorpion. Photo by Marko Lukic
Limestone karsts are biodiversity “arks” containing an extremely high number of species found nowhere else in the world. In particular, organisms that are not adept at long-distance dispersal such as plants and many invertebrates are forced to adapt to the extreme conditions of either the karst surface or subterranean environments. Despite their incredibly rare biodiversity, the karst landscapes of Vietnam and Cambodia are significantly understudied, unprotected and largely unexplored.
Biodiversity experts have identified the unique limestone karst hills in the Kien Luong District in southern Vietnam as home to one of the highest concentrations of threatened endemic species, higher than any other habitat of comparable size on Earth. In particular, the karst hills in the region are of immense global conservation value for invertebrates, such as endemic snails, scorpions and millipedes. The area also hosts numerous threatened plants and the Indochinese Silvered Langur, an Endangered primate.
Meanwhile, a recent rapid survey of the nearby Kampot Karst Hills in Cambodia found over 100 species of plants in just four days, and has already revealed at least three plant species new to science. Two recent studies have identified a new species of sand fly and other cave-dwelling invertebrates.
Because the region’s karst hills are under severe threat from quarrying and habitat degradation, the establishment of protected areas is absolutely necessary to save these endemic species from otherwise certain extinction. It is for these reasons that Rainforest Trust is working with IUCN-Vietnam and IUCN-Cambodia to support the creation and initial management of two protected areas. The 1,422-acre Kien Luong Karst Hills Nature Reserve in Vietnam and the 774-acre Kampot Karst Hills Conservation Area in Cambodia will ensure that these irreplaceable biodiverse karst hills can be protected from the imminent threat of mining.
Indochinese Silvered Langur. Photo by Helene Hoffman
The karst hills of Southeast Asia support a great concentration of species that are highly range restricted; some are even limited to just one or two hills. This extraordinary concentration of endemic wildlife is a result of the adaptation of species to the harsh conditions of limestone and the caves that dot the landscape. Experts believe that many hundreds of species that are unknown to science are still likely be found here.
An IUCN Red List workshop in February 2016 concluded that the karst hills in the proposed protected area in Vietnam contain the world’s entire populations of at least 31 threatened species (six of which are already classified as Critically Endangered). The world’s largest known population of the Indochinese Silvered Langur, an Endangered primate whose numbers have drastically declined due to habitat loss and hunting pressure, is also found in the proposed protected area.
Multiple new species have been discovered at the proposed protected area, including five species of Endangered and Critically Endangered snails (Notharinia sp. nov., Sesara sp. nov., Cyclophorus sp. nov., Macrochlamys sp. nov. and Microcystina sp. nov.), an Endangered springtail (Ceratophysella sp. nov.) and an Endangered woodlouse (Burmoniscus sp. nov.).
In the absence of extensive surveys conducted in the proposed Cambodian protected area, it is not known how many globally threatened species are present. However, there is good reason to believe that the number will be comparable to that found in the nearby karst systems of southern Vietnam, as this biogeographic region is all part of the Mekong Delta Limestone Hills Landscape.
Rock quarry in Vietnam. Photo by Manhai/flickr
The most immediate and detrimental threat to the karst landscape is quarrying of the hills for cement and aggregate by mining companies. Resource extraction is an ongoing challenge that threatens species, as it results in outright habitat destruction as well as habitat fragmentation and subsequent isolation of some populations. It is abundantly clear that uncontrolled mining could cause the extinction of large numbers of unique species in a very short period of time.
Buddhist shrine at the base of Phnom La'Ang. Photo by Steve Bernacki
There are no human settlements inside the proposed protected area in Vietnam, but the surrounding region is densely populated. The majority of the community members practice rice farming and shrimp aquaculture, while some households provide tourism services for the nearby Hon Chong beach and cultural and spiritual tourism at Chua Hang pagoda. Some community members are partly dependent on the resources within the proposed reserve for small-scale extraction such as firewood, medicinal plants and animals. These are activities which will be addressed in the newly developed protected area management plan.
Local communities around the proposed Cambodian protected area depend chiefly upon seasonal rice farming and small-scale cash crop farming. Several Theravada Buddhist monasteries are located in close proximity to the karst hills and their associated religious sites. These monastic communities will be sought out to play an important role in both education and preservation of the natural habitat. Local community members are involved in ongoing botanical surveys and are supportive and eager to participate in management and ecotourism activities.
Researchers collecting a species of Amorphophallus on a ridge line. Photo by Steve Bernacki.
By working with local stakeholders and government agencies, Rainforest Trust’s local partner IUCN-Vietnam plans to ensure the 1,422-acre Kien Luong Karst Hills Nature Reserve is officially incorporated into Vietnam’s protected area system. Then, a protected area management board will be established by the Kien Giang People’s Committee. This board will employ community teams of rangers who will be legally responsible for law enforcement at the site, such as detecting infringements, educating violators and informing relevant agencies such as district rangers and police. Rainforest Trust and IUCN-Vietnam will work with the management board to prepare patrol plans and protocols, ensuring the sustained protection of these immensely biodiverse karst hills.
The Cambodian Ministry of Environment has identified the country’s karst hills area as a priority for protection. Capitalizing on the Ministry’s interest, this collection of karst formations in Kampot Province will become the 774-acre Kampot Karst Hills Conservation Area to be integrated into the government system as a Protected Landscape. A regulated amount of public access will be allowed for education and tourism to religious and cultural sites, while patrol teams consisting of four local community members will guard the areas to prevent inappropriate use. Strategically placed signage will be installed around the perimeters to clearly demarcate boundaries and to inform the public of restricted and prohibited activities.