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Conservationists Warn Hunting, Development Threaten New Species


The greater Mekong region in Southeast Asia is one of the richest, most biodiverse environments in the world. New species are constantly being discovered - 139 last year alone. The new additions include a crocodile newt, a dementor wasp - yes, named after the soul suckers in the Harry Potter books - and a fanged bat. Some species are so rare, the World Wildlife Fund won't tell us what they are or show us photos of them to avoid giving a heads-up to wildlife traffickers. Crawford Allan is with TRAFFIC, an international anti-wildlife-trafficking organization. He says the rarity of some of these species makes them even more desirable to illegal trade.

CRAWFORD ALLAN: The rarer it is, the more protected it is, the more difficult to find, adds to the demand. It adds to the price. There are obsessive collectors out there who will go to any lengths, and they will even work with organized crime networks to get access to some of these really rare species. They want these really beautiful, unusual animals to keep for their collection, if you like.

BATES: Is it kind of like bragging rights? Like, ooh (ph), you have one of those, do you?

ALLAN: One is that some of them are kind of misguided conservationists. They think that if they collect these rare animals from the wild, they're saving them from ultimate extinction, and maybe they will repopulate the planet with their breeding of these animals. And, of course, that's actually misguided because they're never going to be able to put them back into the wild.

And others are doing it because they just - they just can't help themselves. They're obsessed with collecting, and some people are actually banking on extinction. They're waiting for species to go extinct, and they will have the last known specimens in the world, and the price will go through the roof.

BATES: Of course, there's more than a monetary price there, too, because when an animal becomes really, really rare or even extinct, doesn't that affect the topography or the agriculture of the region in which it used to flourish?

ALLAN: You know, the wildlife and the nature are not there just for their inherent beauty. They're also part of an ecosystem that provides services to human beings. The Mekong River itself is a life blood that flows through this region that actually helps provide a whole range of things that are actually sustaining local people who can't make a living or find resources from - in any other way.

BATES: I understand the World Wildlife Fund has made the decision to not even list some of these species or show a photo of them because they are so worried that because of their rarity they may be pinched to the point that they cease to exist. What do you think about that?

ALLAN: Yeah. If things are done wrong, if people announce things in a way that puts a high fanfare of the world's newest, most amazing species, that actually become almost like an advertisement to the criminal elements of the world and the collectors that this animal is out there. We've been very cautious to make sure that certain wildlife that, perhaps, would be just too cute, too gorgeous and too desirable for, say, the pet trade, has not been promoted in this report.

BATES: Finally, before we go, let me ask you about an early case you worked on involving a dead zoo.

ALLAN: Well, it turned out to be the world's worst trafficker in endangered species for the taxidermy trades. I got some information about this guy being involved in actually ordering some of the rarest species on the planet to be killed. Going throughout this home of this trader, it was just like a dead zoo. There were thousands upon thousands of the rarest species on the planet that were there in the shape of skulls, skeletons, bones - stuffed items everywhere you turned. It was absolutely a devastating experience for me. And it was the one that set me on the path I'm on today to try and stop this really dreadful trade that is driving incredible species to the brink and that will be lost forever.

BATES: Crawford Allan is with TRAFFIC, an international anti-wildlife trafficking organization that works with the World Wildlife Fund. Thanks very much for talking with us.

ALLAN: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.