Page last updated at 22:47 GMT, Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Protection for 'weirdest' species

Clinging on to existence, a baby slender loris (Image: ZSL)

A conservation programme for some of the world's most bizarre and unusual creatures has been launched by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Species like the bumblebee bat and the pygmy hippopotamus will be protected under the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (Edge) project.

The scheme targets animals with unique evolutionary histories that are facing a real risk of extinction.

The ZSL says many of these species are ignored by existing conservation plans.

The Society defines Edge animals as having few close relatives, genetically distinct, and require immediate action to save them from extinction.

'One-of-a-kind'

"People have been talking about one-of-a-kind species being particularly important for conservation for a long time, but it has been very difficult to integrate them into conservation planning," Jonathan Baillie, the programme's lead scientist, told BBC News.

"This is the first global-scale programme where we have been able to do it."

This has been made possible because of the development of a taxonomic "super tree" that shows the relationship between different species.

EDGE 'FOCAL SPECIES' FOR 2007
Pygmy hippopotamus (Image: ZSL)
Pygmy hippopotamus
Attenborough's long-beaked echidna
Hispaniolan solenodon
Bactrian camel
Yangtze River dolphin
Slender loris
Hirola antelope
Golden-rumped elephant shrew
Bumblebee bat
Long-eared jerboa
(Image courtesy of ZSL)

"So we know which ones are most evolutionarily distinct, and then we can combine this with threat status," Dr Baillie added.

Scientists have identified a total of 564 species that fall within the new definition, and the ZSL's programme will focus on the top 100.

For the first year, the ZSL has identified 10 "focal species" that will be the first to benefit from the initiative.

The bumblebee bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai), believed to be the world's smallest mammal, is one of the beneficiaries.

It is understood that it is the sole member of the Craseonycteridae family of bats, and is thought to have last shared a common ancestor with another species about 43 million years ago.

Since being first described in 1974, the tiny creature has been disturbed by collectors and tourists wanting to see it.

HAVE YOUR SAY
We should make the effort to save those species which have been directly affected by human activity.
Rob, Toronto, Canada

The main threat facing it comes from forest burning near its habitat of limestone caves in western Thailand and south-east Burma.

The slender loris (Loris tardigradus), found in southern Sri Lanka, is another to benefit.

The ZSL says the fossil record of the lorids extends back to the Early Miocene (20 million years ago).

Populations of this small primate are declining because of deforestation, and conservationists plan to restore its habitat and establish corridors between fragmented areas of forest.

'Mona Lisa' species

Dr Baillie hoped the initiative would help raise awareness of the plight of these little-known animals.

"They represent entire lineages. If you were to think about Edge species in terms of the art world, it would be like losing a Mona Lisa - they are totally irreplaceable and unique.

Hirola antelope
Hirola - Africa's most threatened antelope (Image: Tim Wacher/ZSL)

"At the moment, we are focusing on the 10 focal species where we think we can really make a difference, and we are trying to raise funds to implement conservation actions."

For each of the animals, he says the first step will be to send a team of experts to the region to assess the state of the species.

Local students will then be recruited to act as "Edge conservation fellows" to carry out ongoing research, which will be used to shape strategies to protect the species.

He adds that they are aiming to have action plans in place for the top 100 Edge creatures within the next five years.

The programme will be funded by grants, and from donations made by the public visiting a website updated with the latest field research and blogs from conservationists working on the projects.

The ZSL is currently working on a similar scheme for amphibians, which it hopes to launch in the near future.


Your comments

To focus international interest in such important issues like extinction of strange species makes us still have hope in human kind. We have to make people aware of the importance of keeping our planet, our environment, which is part of our "home", the only one we, humans, can dwell in. Living in a tropical area, makes me think of animals like the Amazonian manati, the pink dolphin and the wonderful condor that flies over the Andes range to be protected. I enjoyed your article. Thank you very much.
Claudia Nussbaumudia Nussbaum, Bogota, Colombia, South America

We nominate Lepidogalaxias salamandroides as an edge candidate. It certainly is an evolutionary distinct fish in a monotypic family.
Leanne O'Brien, Dunedin, New Zealand

I am so happy to see this programme. My children and I have followed unique species like the pygmy hippo for many years. We were very dismayed to lose the pygmy hippo at the Rainforest Zoo in Hilo, Hawaii. She lived alone all her life there and though we kept asking for a mate for her, the zoo staff never got around to it.
Dr. Leilani Brown, Kurtistown, Hawaii



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Some of the rare creatures to be protected



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