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Report: Mekong region 'a biological treasure trove'

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Courtesy of Somsak Panha / FILE

(Read caption) This cyanide-secreting dragon millipede is one of more than 1,000 new species discovered near the Southeast Asia's Mekong River in the last 10 years. Scientists believe that the distinctive hot-pink color warns predators of its toxicity.

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A striped rabbit, a rodent thought to have gone extinct 11 million years ago, a frog with green blood and turquoise bones, and a hot-pink millipede that secretes cyanide are just a few of the new species that have been discovered in the Greater Mekong Region of Southeast Asia in just the last decade, according to a new report by the WWF.

The report, titled First Contact in the Greater Mekong [PDF] details the 1,068 species newly identified by scientists between 1997 and 2007 in areas around the Mekong River. The river, the world's 12th longest, flows through Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and the southern Chinese province of Yunnan.

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The species identified include 519 plants, 279 fish, 88 frogs, 88 spiders, 46 lizards, 22 snakes, 15 mammals, 4 birds, 4 turtles, 2 salamanders, and a toad.

It doesn’t get any better than this,” said Stuart Chapman, director of WWF’s Greater Mekong Programme, in a press release. “We thought discoveries of this scale were confined to the history books. This reaffirms the Greater Mekong’s place on the world map of conservation priorities.”

The region is also a scene of thriving economic development. As MSNBC science blogger Alan Boyle notes, more than 150 large hydroelectric dams are being planned in the region.

According to the WWF report, the Greater Mekong is also threatened by mining, overfishing, poaching, and illegal logging. In addition, the region is  thought to be among those most vulnerable to climate change.

To alleviate the pressure on the region's biodiversity, the report calls for a formal cross-border agreement by the governments of the six countries to conserve about 230,000 square miles of forests and freshwater habitats. The report also argues that governments around the world should introduce legislation making it illegal to import wood from illegal sources, and for banks and lending institutions to implement environmental reporting, management, and risk-evaluation systems.

“Economic development and environmental protection must be mutually supportive to provide for human security needs, reduce poverty, and ensure the survival of the Greater Mekong's astonishing array of species and natural habitats," the report says.

[Editor's note: The original version referred to the organization that prepared the report as "The World Wildlife Fund," which is no longer the official name of the organization.]