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biodiversity > newsfile > scientists aim to save rare animals

Scientists aim to save rare animals

Posted: 16 Jan 2007

Some of the planet's rarest and most unusual animals will be the focus of an ambitious conservation project launched by British scientists. The plan will focus on animals traditionally overlooked by conservationists, and will allow the public to track and donate to individual projects via a new website. This report is by Alok Jha, science correspondent of The Guardian.

Led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Edge project has identified 100 species of mammals that have the fewest relatives left alive in the wild, making them the world's most genetically-unique mammals. The 10 most endangered, including the Yangtze river dolphin and bumblebee bat, will be the focus of the first year's work. Jonathan Baillie of ZSL said the aim was to prevent hundreds of unique species from sliding unnoticed towards extinction.

A slender loris - one of the species scientists are trying to save. Photograph: Zoological Society of London

"This is the first global-scale programme specifically developed to focus on these one-of-a-kind and highly threatened animals. We will be working to protect some of the world's most extraordinary species, including giant venomous shrew-like creatures, matchbox-sized bats and egg-laying mammals, all of which are teetering on the edge of extinction."

The almost-blind Yangtze river dolphin is at the top of the list. "It's extremely threatened, a team was recently out there looking for it and could not find one - they truly are on the verge of extinction," said Dr Baillie.

Others include the egg-laying long-beaked echidna; the mouse-like long-eared jerboa which has the largest ear to body ratio of any mammal; and the world's smallest mammal, the bumblebee bat.

"If we lose them there's nothing similar to them left on the planet," said Dr Baillie. "If you were to think of an Edge species in art terms, it would be like losing the Mona Lisa, something that's irreplaceable and completely distinct."

Ten priority animals

In selecting the Edge list scientists first highlighted those mammals with the fewest close relatives, in order to work out which animals had evolved independently for the longest period of time. The results were cross-referenced with the International Conservation Union's official list of endangered species to identify the 10 priority animals. "When species have few close relatives there could be a number of reasons - they could have evolved for a long time and not created new species or their close relatives could have died off. Either way, they represent entire lineages," said Dr Baillie.

Conserving the animals on the Edge list would be important for keeping ecosystems healthy - the more different types of species that exist in the wild the more they can adapt to changing environmental conditions, he said.

The public can track the progress of the conservation effort and contribute through the project's website. "It's appealing to the general public through the website and identifying what needs to be done to empower people," said Dr Baillie. "It's one thing to tell people that species are threatened but it's another to provide solutions and allow them to get involved in the solution."

Long-beaked echidna
Long-beaked echidna. Photo � Jean-Paul Ferrero/Auscape International

Many of the animals on the Edge list have been overlooked because they come from poorly-explored regions or species groups where scientists have had had little interest. Dr Baillie said raising the animals' profile would be key to their future.

In collaboration with local scientists and biodiversity groups, ZSL scientists will come up with the conservation plans needed for each species on the Edge list. Their plans will be posted on the website and move ahead as money becomes available. "We'll move as fast as we can with the funding available, through the internet and other sources. People can fund projects over the internet and, as soon as they are funded, we'll move forward with them. We'll also have blogs where people can follow progress, and web forums," he said.

ZSL scientists plan to expand the project. They are working on an Edge list for amphibians, and will then move on to other groups. "There is such a gap and so many people are interested in this that it will grow quite rapidly."

Source: The Guardian 16 January 2007.
Copyright Guardian Unlimited

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Note: The first ten selected species, out of the 100 which the Edge Project wants to preserve in the next five years,are:

Slender Loris

Shy, nocturnal primate with huge eyes endemic to Sri Lanka. Populations are declining because its forest habitat is being destroyed and the animals are also hunted for meat and body parts (particularly the eyes) used in folk medicine.

Pygmy hippopotamus

Only 2,000-3,000 individuals remain in the wild, mostly concentrated in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and conservationists say its viability is extremely poor.

Yangtze river dolphin

Also known as the baiji, this is the only living representative of an entire family, having diverged from other river dolphins more than 20m years ago. It has rapidly declined over the past 30 years, and a survey last year failed to find any surviving animals.

Attenborough's long-beaked echidna

One of the few egg-laying mammals, the species is believed to be restricted to a single peak in the Cyclops mountains in the Indonesian province of Papua.

Hispaniolan solenodon

West Indian insect-eater with the unique ability to inject venom into its prey through grooves in upper incisors. Its numbers plummeted when predators such as dogs, cats and mongooses arrived with colonists.

Bactrian camel

Probably the ancestor of all domestic two-humped camels. Fewer than 1,000 individuals survive in Gobi desert.


Called the "four-eye antelope" because its preorbital glands look like a second set of eyes. It is the sole survivor of a once abundant group of antelopes. An estimated 600 survive.

Golden-rumped elephant shrew

The size of a small rabbit, the elephant shrew can run at speeds of up to 25km/h and is endemic to Kenya but is threatened by the destruction and fragmentation of its forest habitat.

Bumblebee bat

World's smallest mammal is endangered in Thailand where it is known from a single national park. Since it was first described in 1974 this tiny mammal has been disturbed by collectors and tourists; other threats are from burning of forest near the limestone caves in which it lives.

Long-eared jerboa

Mouse-like animal with largest ear to body ratio of any mammal. Lives in parts of China and Mongolia but little is known of ecology and no conservation measures have been set up.

Related link:

EDGE - Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (provides information, pictures and maps of these endangered animals).

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