Excitement or extinction?

November has been something of a bumper month for wildlife, with three new species being discovered in Australia and Myanmar. But despite these additions to the animal kingdom indeed being cause for excitement, their newly-ascribed conservation status serves as a stark reminder of the declining state of our planet’s biodversity.

Quite a year for the land down under

The catastrophic wildfires which desamated over 97,000 sq km of Australian landscapes in January prompted scientists to assess the conservation status of the country’s wildlife, and at the start of this month,  two new species of marsupial were found. Marsupials are wildlife that carry their young in a pouch – think kangaroos, wallabies or oppossums – and are endemic to Australia and the Americas.

The species of marsupial in question here are gliders, also commonly known as flying squirrels owing to the parachute-like stretch of skin between its hands and feet helping it to glide between trees. Until now it was believed that Australia was home to just one species of glider, but these recent assessments have identified not one but two additional species.

This is an encouraging moment for conservationists, as glider populations have declined by 80 per cent in just the past 20 years in Victoria’s Central Highlands alone. Habitat loss from logging and urban development combined with climate change, have forced them out of their usual range. Human activity has impacted so heavily on some populations that they have become extinct in Jervis Bay on the New South Wales south coast and lower in the elevations of the Blue Mountains. So, this discovery brings a lot of hope for the future of these animals and for the richness of Australia’s biodiversity.

Myanmar’s new residents

To compound the excitement of Australia’s discovery, a new species of primate was also identified earlier this month in Myanmar. The Popa langur bares a resemblance to its primate cousins but is distinguished by its spectacle-like eye patches and greyish-coloured fur.

Myanmar is home to 20 known species of langur, a primate that can be found all across Asia and are characterised by their long tails and “bespectacled” eyes. But despite there existing numerous species across Asia, langur face many threats including hunting pressure, as well as habitat destruction and fragmentation.

The recent discovery of the Popa langur took place in laboratories where scientists were comparing the genetic makeup of a number of langur species. It turns out that the Natural History Museum from which the gene samples were taken has been unknowingly housing this new species, but it had remained unidentified due to the very close similarities it has to its cousins. For more than 100 years, the distinct Popa langur has been hidden away amidst banks of samples but now is receiving its moment in the spotlight.

Bittersweet discoveries

Despite providing reason for excitement, it is the conservation status of these new species which makes these discoveries somewhat bittersweet.

Not that long ago, Australian gliders were known for being a common and abundant species of marsupial and were of little concern to conservationists. But sadly, the destruction of their habitat has caused numbers to dwindle and this new species of glider has already been categorised as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red list of threatened species.

When we hear of a new species being discovered, we assume that means it has been unaffected by human activity and that its populations are at natural levels. But as is the case with the Australian gliders, the Popa langur in Myanmar has already been identified as heavily threatened. Even though it has yet to be formerly categorised, conservationists are predicting that this species of langur is at the “critically endangered” level of the IUCN Red list, with just 200 individuals remaining in the wild.

Lessons to learn

The identification of these new species of marsupial and primate have generated excitement across the world, and rightly so. If it is representative of a genuine desire to protect our planet’s biodiversity, then we should harness this excitement and channel it into methods that protect and conserve wildlife.

Habitat destruction and hunting are two of the biggest drivers of extinction, and as such the alarming conservation status of both gliders and the Popa langur serve as a lesson for humanity: we cannot continue our exploitation of the natural world and expect our planet’s wildlife to go unaffected.

The truth is that these species aren’t “new” to the animal kingdom, they have called our planet home for far longer than we have known them. They are however new to our human-dominated world, a world that would sooner push them out of their own habitat than marvel at their existence.

To protect our planet’s biodiversity we desperately need to adjust our relationship with the natural world. We must take heed of communities who have learnt to understand and respect nature, and are already living in peaceful coexistence with wildlife. Perhaps then we will discover new species that don’t require immediate intervention to save them from disappearing just as fast as they appeared.