Rays of hope in survival of species - Veterinary Practice
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Rays of hope in survival of species

A Veterinary Practice correspondent ponders on the recent ‘discovery’ of a two metre long Monitor lizard.

THE discovery of a new animal species is always exciting. Frequently such discoveries involve a small invertebrate and it is easy to see how its previous existence was missed.

Sometimes, though, a new discovery involves an animal of considerable size. Contemporary examples include the kipunji, a new genus of monkey found in Africa, and the saola, a large bovid found in the forests of Vietnam.

The most recent addition to this list is a two metre long monitor lizard that was “discovered” in the forests of the Sierra Madre mountains in the north of the Philippines.

I say “discovered” because the lizard was apparently well known to the tribespeople of the area who described it as “shy but tasty”!

How it remained unknown to scientists until now is something of a mystery although it is true that few scientific expeditions had previously looked specifically at the reptiles living in that area.

This new lizard has both a body and a tail of about one metre long with a dark skin covered in gold yellow spots and flecks. Its legs are predominantly yellow and the scales on its body can also appear green and blue in colour. It lives in trees, rarely comes into the open and survives on a diet of fruit, making it one of only three monitor species to do so.

Although the discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration, it merely serves to highlight the acute crisis at the other end of the spectrum, that of species extinction. And it seems, according to Simon Stuart, who chairs the Species Survival Commission for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, that human activity is now causing animal and plant species to become extinct at a faster rate than new species can evolve. It is thought that this is the first time that such a threshold has been crossed since the dinosaurs disappeared.

To put some figures on this, it is calculated that extinctions caused by human activity are now progressing at between 100-1,000 times the background rate estimated from the fossil record. And that this could rise to 10,000 times the background rate in the next couple of decades.

To quote some more figures, it looks like scientists have only just scratched the surface when it comes to recognising and naming all the species of plants and animals found worldwide, nearly two million out of an estimated five to 30 million.

The shocking truth is than many species will become extinct (through human activity) before we even know they exist. Which is rather like throwing away everything in all your cupboards and drawers without first looking to see if you want any of it.


To me the really sad bit about the extinction of species is the fact that for the most part it really doesn’t have to be this way. Mostly it is the result of habitat destruction that we really should be better able to manage now that we have so much more knowledge of how ecosystems work.

Conservationists can get good results if the political will is there. A case in point is the West African giraffe, once common across Western Africa from Senegal through to Chad. They are now the most endangered of the nine subspecies of giraffe with numbers dwindling to about 50 individuals back in 1996.

Fortunately, bowing to pressure from conservation groups, the Niger Government took note and banned the hunting and poaching of giraffes with severe fines and prison sentences as penalties.

The result has been truly astounding in that despite a slow reproductive rate with a gestation period of about 14 months, the number of West African giraffes has recovered to somewhere around 200. And while it’s not out of the woods yet, it surely has a much better chance of surviving now that its value as a tourist attraction is being recognised.

Rays of hope like this show that much can be achieved if people change their behaviour and try instead to co-exist with the animals and plants that share our environment and which remind us of what a wonderful place the world really is.

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