Southeast Asia is a global hotspot for species richness and diversity. Sadly, much of this biodiversity is increasingly threatened. As of July 2019, 221 land and/or freshwater vertebrate species found in Southeast Asia are now listed as Critically Endangered (CR) by the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM – indicative that these species face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. This is an increase from the previous count of 199 species from earlier this year, with freshwater fishes accounting for all the new species on the list.
A Fishy Problem
Freshwater fishes see their numbers rise from 48 to 70 species, following the recent IUCN Red Listing workshop for Freshwater Fishes in the Sunda region (Western Indonesia and Malaysia) held in March this year. This event was co-organised by ASAP, IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit, IUCN Conservation Planning Specialist Group (CPSG) and Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS). Although it is alarming to see such a spike in numbers, for many freshwater fish species this is the first time their risk of extinction has been assessed. This is the first step in highlighting the threats they face and will help to ensure that targeted conservation measures can be put in place to ensure their survival.
Many of the newly Critically Endangered fishes hail from peat swamp forests; a unique habitat characterised by acidic water the colour of freshly brewed tea. Over the course of millennia, many peat swamp fishes have evolved to thrive in these harsh environments. However, a consequence of these specialisations is that they are unable to survive elsewhere, and the widespread clearance of peat swamps for oil palm plantations and other forms of agriculture has resulted in the disappearance of many of these species from their former haunts. Many of these peat swamp endemics are often geographically restricted as well, with many isolated blocks of peat swamp forest hosting a small number of fish species found nowhere else.
The increase in the number of Critically Endangered fishes on the recent Red List publication signals the urgency needed to avert extinctions and reverse declines in this neglected group. Though the situation may seem grim, we are optimistic that novel conservation strategies and partnerships will lead the way in saving these species on the brink!
If you, or your organisation, work on, or are keen to work on, any ASAP freshwater fish species, please get in touch!
Featured image © Movin Nyanasengeran