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Hundreds of New Species Found in Warming Eastern Himalayas
KATHMANDU, Nepal, August 11, 2009 (ENS) - The world's smallest deer, a new species of monkey, and a flying frog are among the 353 new species that have been identified in the Eastern Himalayas between 1998 and 2008, but conservationists warn that global warming is threatening to alter the native habitats of these unique plants and animals.

The discoveries by scientists from dozens of different institutions include 242 plants, 16 amphibians, 16 reptiles, 14 fish, two birds and two mammals, and at least 61 new invertebrates. The new species were found in a region stretching across Bhutan and northeast India to the far north of Myanmar into Nepal and the southern Tibetan plateau.

Miniature muntjac deer, called leaf deer (Photo © Alan Rabinowitz courtesy WWF Nepal)

"This enormous cultural and biological diversity underscores the fragile nature of an environment which risks being lost forever unless the impacts of climate change are reversed," said Tariq Aziz, leader of WWF's Living Himalayas Initiative, which Monday published a new report compiling all these discoveries, "The Eastern Himalayas Where Worlds Collide."

One of the two new mammals is the world's smallest deer species, a miniature muntjac, standing 60 to 80 centimeters (23 to 31 inches) tall and weighing about 11 kilograms (24 pounds). It was first seen in 1999 by a team of scientists in the Himalayan region of northern Myanmar.

Examining the carcass of a deer they believed to be the juvenile of another species, the scientists were astounded to learn that the carcass was of an adult female of an unknown species.

Obtaining specimens from local hunters, scientists conducted DNA analysis in a New York laboratory, confirming the so-called "leaf deer," Muntiacus putaoensis, as a unique species.

The muntjac group, with its 11 known living species, is the oldest known deer group, first appearing in the fossil record 15 to 35 million years ago.

In 1999, scientists believed Muntiacus putaoensis to be found only near the town of Putao in Myanmar, where it was first discovered. Then in 2003, a team of Indian scientists reported that the leaf deer also inhabits the rainforests close to Namdapha Tiger Reserve in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The first identification of the species in India, it was the only addition to the ungulate fauna of the Indian subcontinent in the last century.

Arunachal macaques (Photo © Anindya Sinha courtesy WWF Nepal)

The other newly discovered mammal is a monkey - the Arunachal macaque, Macaca munzala - found in 2005 in the high altitudes of western Arunachal Pradesh.

At the time, it was the first new monkey species identified anywhere in the world in over a century. The newly described macaque is stocky in build and has a darker face than other closely related species. It is the highest-dwelling macaque in the world, living between 1,600 meters and 3,500 meters (between one and two miles) above sea level.

The status of the new monkey is not yet fully known, the report explains. Field studies have documented a total of 569 individuals in the Tawang and West Kameng districts of Arunachal Pradesh. Although new to science, locals are familiar with the macaques, which they blame for damaging their crops. As a result, the species, known locally as "mun zala" or deep-forest monkey by the Dirang Monpa people, is vulnerable to hunting in the only two places it is known to live.

Most of the 16 new amphibians also are found only in areas of highly specialized habitat.

The bright green, red-footed tree frog, Rhacophorus suffry, is called a flying frog because its long, webbed feet allow the species to glide when falling. This frog has been found in just five sites, including the Suffry tea estate in the Indian state of Assam, where it was originally found.

One of the most significant findings, WFF says, is a 100 million year old gecko, the oldest fossil gecko species known to science, discovered in an amber mine in the Hukawng Valley in Himalayan regions of far northern Myanmar.

Threats to the Eastern Himalayas detailed in the WWF report include "forest destruction as a result of unsustainable and illegal logging, leading to floods; shifting cultivation; unsustainable fuel wood collection; overgrazing by domestic livestock; illegal poaching and wildlife trade for pelts and traditional Asian medicine; mining; water diversion and pollution; tourism; and poorly-planned infrastructure, especially dam and road construction."

The region is among the most vulnerable to global climate change, which conservationists say will amplify the impacts of these existing threats. "Only 25 percent of the original habitats in the region remain intact," according to the 2009 study "Biodiversity Hotspots: Himalayas" by Conservation International, which is quoted in the WWF report.

Flying frog (Photo © Totul Bortamuli courtesy WWF Nepal)

"People and wildlife form a rich mosaic of life across this rugged and remarkable landscape, making it among the biologically richest areas on Earth. But the Himalayas are also among the most vulnerable to global climate change," said Aziz.

In December, world leaders will gather in Copenhagen to reach an agreement on a new climate agreement to replace the existing Kyoto Protocol.

"Only an ambitious and fair deal based on an agreement between rich and poor countries can save the planet and its treasures such as the Himalayas from devastating climate change," said Kim Carstensen, leader of the WWF's Global Climate Initiative.

The Eastern Himalayas are now known to hold 10,000 plant species, 300 mammal species, 977 bird species, 176 reptiles, 105 amphibians and 269 types of freshwater fish. The region has the highest density of the Endangered Bengal tiger and is the last bastion of the Endangered greater one-horned rhino.

Rugged and inaccessible, the Eastern Himalayas have posed obstacles to scientists undertaking wildlife surveys, and as a result, large areas are still biologically unexplored.

Children in India, where some new species were discovered (Photo © Dhilung Kirat courtesy WWF Nepal)

WWF aims to conserve the habitat of endangered species such as snow leopards, Bengal tigers, Asian elephants, red pandas, takins, golden langurs, rare Gangetic dolphins and one-horned rhinos as well as the thousands of plant and animal species believed to be still undiscovered in the Eastern Himalayas.

In the report, WWF suggests that to achieve effective conservation, the governments of Bhutan, India and Nepal, who already recognize the importance of the Himalayas at a national level, develop a shared three-country vision for the region as a whole.

"This will result in a unified conservation and sustainable development plan that ensures the connectivity of landscapes within the Eastern Himalayas, allowing for the free movement of wildlife across political borders and combating illegal trade at a regional level," the report states.

WWF advises that "broadening the scope and scaling up the local stewardship of forests, grasslands, and wetlands" would assure the future of the wildlife that live there because the people who share these lands would then have a vested interest in species survival.

WWF warns that development initiatives, particularly in the energy and tourism sectors, must take the environment into account to prevent irretrievable damage to the very resources on which economic development depends.

Ensuring that communities are supported to cope with the "inevitable" effects of climate change, such as floods from glacial lake collapse and changing weather patterns, is crucial, WWF recommends.

The global conservation group advises, "Water availability will be a key concern and, since major rivers rising in the Eastern Himalayas support millions of people downstream as well as the rich biodiversity, so river management will need to take place at a regional, river-basin scale, if it is to meet the needs of all."

Click here to read the full report, "The Eastern Himalayas Where Worlds Collide."

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.

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