From 'microjewel' snails to the magnificent Tok Belang, the past year marks another sad chapter in the tale of our country’s vanishing biodiversity. (This report has been updated with corrections – Editor)
Among the many subplots of humanity’s great symphonic rise to power and domination here on Earth is the pathetic wheeze that represents the depletion of the planet’s biodiversity. While extinction of species is more or less expected in the grand narrative of evolution, there’s something truly disturbing about the natural world’s recent decline.
As revealed in Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, humanity has become the biggest driver of what some scientists are calling the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid. It’s the first time in Earth’s history that a single organism has managed to overwhelm the ecology to such a degree that we’re not just making it hostile to other creatures but also ourselves.
This mass extinction was brought close to home when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List – a list that tracks threatened species across the planet – was updated this year. In its evaluation of 76,199 species, which represents only about 4% of 1.8 million species known to science, it's deemed that 2,413 are under threat. Meanwhile, 28 were added to the list of extinct species.
Sadly, a tiny, rare snail named Plectostoma sciaphilum that was endemic to Malaysia was among the 28.
Part of a family of snails that scientists have called “microjewels” for their delicately formed shells and minute size, Plectosoma sciaphilum used to live on the side of Bukit Pancing, a 300m limestone hill in Pahang. The snail apparently found its ecological niche on the hill, living and evolving there in relative isolation for millennia.
Then, between 2003 and 2007, excavators levelled the entire hill. Since the snail can be found nowhere else but on Bukit Pancing – the hill is now a lake – it’s assumed that, like the dodo and the West African black rhino, Plectostoma sciaphilum is gone forever.
The fight is now on to save fellow snail Charopa lafargei, which can be found only on Gunung Kanthan in Perak, currently being quarried by Lafarge. Despite pleas from environmental groups to save the limestone hill – it’s also home to a trapdoor spider, Liphistius kanthan, also found nowhere else – half of it is already gone.
The snails’ plight brings up an important point about our knowledge of species under threat. Most of the time we don’t even know that they’re there. A lot of animals look alike at first glance, but DNA testing reveals them to be distinct species or sub-species unique to a specific area. And they’re also not easy to count.
For the record
The Star Online articles "A Malaysian snail goes extinct; over 22,000 other species on the brink" and "Going, going, gone: Malaysia's wildlife loses battle against extinction" (published on Nov 22 and Dec 22, respectively) reported on the extinction of a microsnail because of quarrying of Bukit Panching in Pahang. YTL Cement Bhd has clarified that Bukit Panching was not quarried by it, as reported in the original articles. We apologise for the error.
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