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  Straits Times 22 Sep 07
Conservation: Zoos have 'key role to play'
S'pore Zoo has spent $300k on such efforts in last 3 years;
next year's focus: the amphibian crisis
By Arti Mulchand

OVER a third of the world's 34 biodiversity hot spots are in the Asia-Pacific, and the ever-expanding human population there - as well as escalating human-wildlife conflict - puts them increasingly under threat.

That is why the region needs to step up on conservation efforts over the next decade, and zoos have a critical role to play in that direction, said Mr Biswajit Guha, assistant director of zoology at the Singapore Zoo.

'Within the region, there have been very few zoo-initiated conservation efforts, so even small steps would be important ones,' he told The Straits Times on the sidelines of the inaugural Asian Zoo Educators Conference, held here earlier this month.

Zoos to emulate include those in New York City's Bronx, San Diego and London, with their long history of conservation and research, he said.

Here in Singapore, conservation projects have begun to move to the forefront in the last three years, and will continue to dominate the agenda for the next decade. This includes zooming in on Singapore's own threatened flora and fauna, like the cream-coloured squirrel, which has not been sighted for a long time, said Mr Guha.

Next year, the zoo will also join conservationists from around the world in highlighting the amphibian crisis. Up to half of all amphibian species could become extinct in the coming years, through habitat loss and climate change - the biggest mass extinction since dinosaurs disappeared.

The zoo will have special frog exhibits and mount a public education campaign, as well as activities to highlight the problem.

In the last three years, the zoo has put about $300,000 into conservation and research work.

Even more has gone into projects that include in-house breeding of two endangered primates - the douc langur and proboscis monkey - to help better understand how they grow and survive.

People do not realise the extent of the crisis, he said. Out of some 1.75 million life forms identified, just 41,415 have been properly assessed by The World Conservation Union. Of them, 16,306 are threatened with extinction. These include one in four mammals, one in eight birds, a third of all amphibians, and 70 per cent of assessed plants.

'Huge numbers have not even been assessed, and could become extinct before they are,' said Mr Guha.

And while zoo visitors tend to take notice of iconic animals like great apes and elephants, they should be aware of the threat to less noticeable animals, like bats and squirrels. Such non-iconic animals make up the majority of biodiversity in most ecosystems, and are quickly being depleted, Mr Guha warned.

But getting people to realise the importance of conservation in their own backyard is a challenge, he said.

'People tend to be blase about it, and tend to care only about what they know and love. What they don't know about, they don't bother about,' he said.

Traditional practices like eating shark's fin, for example, do not help, he said, adding: 'People really need to learn that not everything is in infinite supply.

links Related articles on Singapore: general environmental issues
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