Situated between India and China, the two most populous and fastest-developing superpowers in the world, the forests and wetlands associated with the river basins of Southeast Asia's largest rivers are some of the most biodiverse and threatened on Earth. The ecosystems range from the forested mountains of the Eastern Himalayas and Annamites, to the vast floodplain of the Mekong - Tonle Sap basin and the delta of the Ayeyarwady, from the wilderness of northern Myanmar to densely populated Mekong delta of Vietnam.
Growing investments in agro-industrial production and development infrastructure are driving large-scale deforestation and wetland conversion. Wildlife trafficking and the high demand in Asia for animals and their parts has spawned an illegal trade in wildlife both regionally and globally.
WCS has worked in the region for more than 20 years, through periods of war and civil strife, with the goal of maintaining the remaining forests, wetlands, and unique biodiversity.
How Will We Get There?
We employ a few key strategies:
Undertake targeted actions to reduce forest loss at key landscapes for biodiversity conservation and the livelihoods of local people.
Develop a long-term strategy for addressing the threats from agro-industrial, and other large-scale development.
On wildlife trafficking, work with government, civil society, and media partners along major regional wildlife trafficking networks to strengthen the commitment and institutional capacity of key agencies to combat the problem through a replicable and scalable model of international government-government collaboration.
Among our successes in the area, over the last two decades WCS scientists have played a key role in finding a number of new species, including the striped rabbit, the Laotian rock rat and the large-antlered muntjac of Laos's Annamite Mountains; the leaf deer of northern Myanmar; and the Mekong wagtail and Cambodian tailorbird of the Cambodian lowlands.
WCS has also worked with governments to establish new protected areas. We are currently committed to eight of the region's last and largest wild places, including some of the world's key remaining habitats for tigers, Asian elephants, and many other lesser known threatened species.
WCS has long had a pioneering presence in the region. This began in 1910 with William Beebe, curator at the New York Zoological Society, surveying pheasants in northern Burma. It continued with NYZS supporting Charles Wharton's 1952 expedition to document and film kouprey in northern Cambodia. In the mid-90s, WCS rekindled this pioneering spirit, becoming among the first to establish permanent conservation programs in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, as these countries emerged from conflict and political strife.
After more than 15 years of conservation by WCS, the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and local people, the number of breeding storks in the flooded forest of Prek Toal on Cambodia's Tonle Sap has increased dramatically from 2000 pairs to more than 20,000.
What's at Stake?
The region is ranked as one of the world's top ten biodiversity hotspots. It has also placed in the top five for threats, with only 5% of its natural habitat remaining and some of the fastest rates of economic growth.
In 1998, intrepid WCS conservationists completed Cambodia's first wildlife surveys in over 50 years. In Tonle Sap, they discovered the vestiges of a once-great waterbird colony. Massive unregulated collection of eggs and chicks had reduced populations of species such as Oriental darter to just a few hundred breeding pairs. Working with the Ministry of Environment, WCS used the offer of regular wages to convert the egg and chick collectors into nest guardians. Stationed on a network of tree-top platforms, community members vigilantly protected nests throughout the breeding season. The birds responded immediately, rapidly increasing in number. From a few hundred pairs, the Darter population has grown to over 14,000 individuals. This thriving waterbird colony is now an important tourist destination, bringing visitors from around the world, and, most importantly, direct economic benefits to the communities who protect the birds and their nesting trees.