Wed, Dec 20, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Bornean paradise reveals its secrets

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It is perhaps the closest place on the planet to the mythical prehistoric paradise found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 classic The Lost World. But the Heart of Borneo, as it has been christened by conservation agencies trying to save it from destruction, is finally beginning to yield its secrets.

A mission by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) scientists to the southeast Asian island found 52 species previously unknown to science, including three types of trees, two tree frogs and a tiny fish less than 1cm long.

"These new discoveries reaffirm Borneo's position as one of the most important centers of biodiversity in the world," said Stuart Chapman, the international coordinator of the fund's Heart of Borneo program.

"The remote and inaccessible forests in the Heart of Borneo are one of the world's final frontiers for science and many undiscovered species are still waiting to be found there," he said.

Extinctions

But he warned that species are becoming extinct as fast as the scientists can find them. In the second half of the 20th century, forest cover on the island -- which includes parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and the sultanate of Brunei -- dropped from 162 million hectares to 98 million hectares. Since 1996, deforestation has accelerated to 2 million hectares a year.

Borneo's forests are being cleared for rubber, oil palm and pulp production. Logging roads into the forest also make it easier for illegal wildlife traders to poach animals.

The Heart of Borneo is a forested highland region which covers 30 percent of the island and is home to orangutan, clouded leopard, sun bear, Borneo pygmy elephant and proboscis monkey.

But a WWF expedition between July last year and September this year has added another 52 species. One, the fish Paedocypris micromegethes, grows to just 8.8mm long and is the world's second-smallest backboned animal. It lives in highly acidic peak swamps and is translucent. Its small size may mean that it can survive droughts in puddles that remain when ponds dry out.

Chapman said that the discovery of the three new tree species was particularly astonishing because of all animal and plant groups, these should be the easiest to locate.

Most diverse

With around 15,000 plant species, Borneo is the most botanically diverse region on the planet. By comparision, the UK is home to 1,623 plant species.

"The rate of discovery is about four new species a month for 10 years," Chapman said. "That highlights something special here."

He said that Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei were due to sign a three-way agreement early next year on how to protect the region.

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