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NEW SPECIES OF MAMMAL DISCOVERED BY UNEP-BACKED EXPEDITION

NAIROBI, February 6, 2001- A new species of camel may have been discovered in a "lost world" of salty sand dunes on the edge of the Tibetan mountains.

Experts estimate that the total population in Asia numbers less than 1,000 making them more endangered than the Giant Panda.

Genetic tests on animal remains, collected on expeditions by a Chinese-British team, have found significant variation between these newly discovered wild bactrian or "two humped" camels and their domesticated

cousins.

John Hare, the joint expedition leader and founder of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation whose work has been supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), said yesterday: "The scientists doing the genetic tests have found a three per cent difference in the base pairs between the domesticated and these wild bactrian camels."

"You have to remember that there is only a five per cent difference between man and chimpanzees. So these wild camels may be a different species never domesticated by humans," said Mr Hare, whose foundation is based in Benenden, Kent.

The wild camels, which were found in the middle of the inhospitable and dangerous Kum Tagh sand dunes in China's Xinjiang province, are also adapted to survive on salt water bubbling up from beneath the desert, the team were astonished to discover.

Kate Rae, a trustee of the foundation whose patron is the world renowned chimpanzee expert Dr Jane Goodall, said yesterday: "These camels can withstand enormous physiological stress. Scientists are extremely interested to know how their liver, kidneys and lungs can withstand the salt without killing these wild camels".

The foundation, which is working with the Chinese State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA) with funding from UNEP through the GEF to establish a reserve to be known as the Arjin Shan Lop Nur Nature Reserve, claim urgent action is needed to save the animals from poachers.

The area in which they live was used by China for nuclear weapons testing and has been, since 1955, a no go area for people.

But tests were ended there in 1996 and there has been an influx of miners and hunters some of whom have been sowing land mines around the camels' salty water holes.

Mr Hare said: "The remoteness of the area has helped preserve these camels. The fact that people were not allowed in by the Chinese government has also helped them survive. But with the cessation of nuclear tests, illegal hunters and miners looking for gold and iron ore are moving in. We found land mines put by the salt water springs. So when the camels come to drink they step on them, bang. They are blown to pieces and picked up as meat".

News of the discovery was released today at the 21st session of UNEP's Governing Council where ministers from close to 100 countries are meeting at its headquarters in Nairobi.

On the agenda are a range of pressing issues ranging from how to protect vulnerable populations against the impact of climate related natural disasters, the need to strengthen environmental laws in emerging economies to the impact of globalisation on native, indigenous, cultures.

UNEP's work programme and its need for better financing to help it meet the environmental challenges of the new millennium are also taking centre stage.

Klaus Topfer, Executive director of UNEP, said: "I am delighted that we have been able to play a role in these new wildlife discoveries. We have many responsibilities but these include helping protect the world's animals and plants. The discovery of these camels underlines that the natural world still has many secrets and surprises which enrich our knowledge of the earth and our understanding of nature".

It is estimated, based on surveys and interviews with local herdsmen, that the population of wild camels in China number just 600.

A further 300 are estimated to be in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.

Only 15 known individuals are held in captivity.

The Prjewalkoi horse of Mongolia, which became extinct in 1969 in the wild, was saved through a captive breeding programme because there were 500 individuals in zoos and private collections.

They are currently being re-introduced back into Mongolia.

"If these wild camels become extinct then we do not have the numbers or the genetic diversity among those in captivity to guarantee a successful captive breeding programme. That makes them more endangered than the Giant Panda," said Mr Hare.

The wild Bactrian camel is currently ranked as highly endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List but experts think there may be an argument for listing the species as "critically endangered", the highest ranking of threat for a species.

Robert Hepworth, a senior biodiversity official in UNEP said: " These wild camels are probably a unique species, and the two range states of China and Mongolia have a unique opportunity to preserve this species for posterity. UNEP, GEF and the world conservation community are already playing their part by supporting protection programmes. Yet more needs to be done, for example by increasing the protection available to the species through treaties such as the UNEP Conventions on Biodiversity and

Migratory Species.

"When people think about charismatic wildlife, they too often tend to think about animals like the tiger or the cheetah. But these camels may well be as special in the natural world as these other, better known, rare

and endangered species," he said.

UNEP, working with the GEF, has put $750,000 into the establishment of the new reserve and public awareness programmes.

UNEP also spent one million and six hundred and fifty thousand dollars in 1979 to assist the Mongolian government in creating the Great Gobi Reserve which is helping to protect wild Bactrian camels there from predation by wolves and other threats.

Funding for the Chinese reserve has so far led to the setting up of five checkpoints to police people entering the Arjin Shan Lop Nur Wild Camel Reserve.

The foundation estimates that ten more check points are needed to secure the vast reserve which, despite being 150,000 square kilometers in size or one and a quarter the size of Poland, has only 15 roads or entry points into it.

The team leading the DNA, genetic tests, on the wild camels are hoping to publish their results soon.

The scientists are led by Professor Han Jianlin, a molecular geneticist from Gansu Agricultural University in China and Professor Olivier Hanotte, another molecular geneticist from the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

Dr Hanotte said yesterday: "There is indeed genetic variation between the wild and domesticated two humped camel. There are two possibilities here. One is that the domestic camel was bred from these wild ones sometime back in history. So when we look these wild camels found in China we may be

looking at the ancestor of the domestic camel rather like wolves are the ancestor of dogs".

" The second possibility is that the domestic camel we see today was bred from another species that has disappeared. This would mean that these wild camels found by the expedition in China and the population in Mongolia are a totally separate species," he said.

The scientists believe that it may be possible to cross breed these wild camels with domestic ones to improve their genetic stock and to endow them with the ability to live in harsh environments with only salty water.

NOTES TO EDITORS.

For more information, photographs, locator map and interviews please contact:

Nick Nuttall on tel: 254 2 623381 or Mobile 0733 632755 Nick.Nuttall@UNEP.org and Robert Bisset on tel: 254 2 623084 or Mobile, 072 520231 Robert.Bisset@unep.org; Tore J. Brevik, UNEP spokesman and Director of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 2 623292, tore.brevik@unep.org

UNEP web site www.unep.org

The Wild Camel Protection Foundation Tel: 44-1580 241132.

Harecamel@aol.com

Rob Hepworth Deputy Director, Division of Environmental Conventions UNEP

PO Box 30552 Nairobi Kenya

tel : [254-2] 623260

fax :[254-2] 623926

Email : robert.hepworth@unep.org

The International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya 254 2 630743

John Hare has carried out several expeditons to Mongolia and China.

The wild camels in the Kum Tagh sand dunes near Tibet's Arjin Shan Mountains were discovered in 1999. 169 wild Bactrian camels were found along with 22 wild sheep and 14 Tibetan asses. The population is known as "na´ve". Being isolated for so long they had no fear of man.

Genetic testing was begun shortly afterwards.

The foundation is in discussions with Chester Zoo in England about a captive breeding programme.

It wishes to thank the Chinese and Mongolian governments for their assistance in making the expeditions possible and for supporting the establishment of reserves. The two governments have signed a Letter of

Intent to protect the wild bactrian camel.

UNEP and the GEF have given funding of $750,000 to the wild bactrian camel through the Medium Sized Projects scheme.

The foundation has raised $200,000 independently from trusts and other sources.

Help has also come from National Geographic magazine; Shell China; Jardine Fleming in Beijing; Kleinwort Benson in London and Cable and Wireless who are providing communication equipment for reserve staff.

The Xinjiang Provincial Authorities have agreed to fund the running costs of the new reserve including staff wages and petrol for patrol vehicles.

Please mention UNEP in any articles published. Cuttings should be faxed to

UNEP at 254 2 623927 or cpinfo@unep.org

Documentation and press information about the 21st session of the Governing Council can be seen on UNEP's web site at: www.unep.org/GC_21st/

Live coverage of press conferences, special events and some of the conference sessions are also being broadcast live on the web at the above address

UNEP News Release 01/14

 
 

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