Malaysia plans 'red book' in its attempts to go green

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Biodiversity catalogue marks shift in attitude.

Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia, criticized in the past for being a poor steward of its biodiversity, seems to be turning over a new leaf.

Biodiversity experts from across the country met in Kuala Lumpur last month to hammer out a plan that would catalogue the country's thousands of plant and animal species.

Malaysia is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. It is thought to host around 15,000 different plant species, although only about half that number have been found and listed. But the country has become infamous in recent decades for clearing rainforests and draining peat swamps to grow palm trees — it now produces around half of the world's supply of palm oil. The effect of this on the country's biodiversity is not known.

Malaysia's drive to grow palm trees for palm oil has had untold effects on the country's biodiversity. Credit: M. EDWARDS/STILL PICTURES

The international Convention on Biological Diversity has been pressuring Malaysia to come up with conservation strategies since it came into force in 1993, with little result. But Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who became prime minister in 2003, is said to be more sympathetic than his predecessor to ecological issues. In particular, he is keen to use the country's biodiversity to drive drug development.

That momentum, and associated funding, has led to a project to create a national ‘red book’. This would catalogue which species are present and where, as well as listing any threats they face. The project will be overseen by Saw Leng Guan of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur.

But Peter Ng, a conservation biologist at the National University of Singapore, says Malaysia will be a tough nut to crack because knowledge is so fragmented. Drastic funding cuts in the 1990s also left the country with few taxonomists. “We have money, but we need people to do the work,” he says.

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Forest Research Institute Malaysia

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Cyranoski, D. Malaysia plans 'red book' in its attempts to go green. Nature 436, 313 (2005) doi:10.1038/436313b

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