A book newly acquired by the Thammsat University Libraries gives us insights into species that are endangered and extinct. A Fish Caught in Time : the Search for the Coelacanth was written by Samantha Weinberg, a writer and journalist born in London. The coelacanth (pronounced see-lo-canth) is a fish that was considered extinct for almost 70 million years, until one was found in a fisherman’s nets in 1938 in South Africa. This unusual fish may have been the first sea creature to crawl onto land. Closer to four-legged vertebrates than most fish, coelacanths were seen as a kind of missing link between sea and land animals. This famous discovery reminded scientists and the general public that even if no fossils survive of some animals, it does not always mean that they are gone forever. Since then, living West Indian Ocean coelacanths were discovered living in many places, including Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, and South Africa. The coelacanth is only interesting for museums and scientists, since it is not good to eat. Commercial deep-sea fishing may be threatening the continued existence of this fish, as they are caught along with every other fish swimming in a given area. For a long time, living coelacanths were only identified in the western Indian Ocean, but in September 1997 and July 1998, coelacanths were found in northern Sulawesi, Indonesia, nearly 6,000 miles to the east of the Comoros. They had significantly different DNA than the Indonesian specimens. It is thought that the two populations have been separated for millions of years. Nature reported the discovery:
On 30 July this year, a fisherman called Om Lameh Sonathan and his 10-strong crew caught a strange fish in deep water off the small volcanic island of Manado Tua in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The 29-kilogram, 124-centimetre fish was an unusual catch – for it was a coelacanth, a rare ‘living fossil’ whose only other known population is 10,000 kilometres away, in the Comoro Islands in the western Indian Ocean. The discovery of coelacanths in Indonesia changes our outlook on the conservation status of a fish that looks very much as its ancestors did, 370 million years ago, and which was believed to have become extinct about 70 million years ago – until a living specimen was netted off South Africa sixty years ago, startling the zoological world. The Indonesian fisherman took the fish to Mark Erdmann, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of California, Berkeley, who has been working in Sulawesi for several years. He had been on the track of a live coelacanth for ten months, ever since his wife had spotted one in a fish market in Manado, Sulawesi – equivalent to seeing a unicorn in your garden – and had managed to take a few photographs before the fish was sold. Erdmann pursued the elusive fish by first interviewing local fishermen, several of whom claimed to have caught what locals call raja laut – the ‘King of the Sea’.
Even for people not professionally involved in biology, the discovery of an animal previously considered to be long extinct was highly interesting. As Nature described it:
Finding a living coelacanth would be like finding a living dinosaur – yet it happened, on 23 December, 1938…
Scientists believe that these two locations were favorable for the fish becase they prefer to live in deep, cool waters, around 180 meters deep and less than 18 °C.
Thailand and Endangered Animals
In recent years, Thailand has become generally aware of the importance of preserving endangered animals, and now has fifteen designated reserved wild animal species, defined by the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act of BE 2535 (1992). Hunting, breeding, possessing, or trading these species is forbidden, except for scientific research with permission from the Permanent Secretary of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, or breeding and possession by authorized public zoos. The reserved species are the white-eyed river martin; Javan rhinoceros; Sumatran rhinoceros; kouprey; wild Asian water buffalo; Eld’s deer; Schomburgk’s deer; Mainland serow; Chinese goral; Gurney’s pitta; Sarus crane; marbled cat; Malayan tapir; Fea’s muntjac; and dugong. City dwellers may have never seen these animals and may not have an emotional connection to them. Still, those who take an interest in the countryside, and know about the significance of preserving nature, should care about them. We are still discovering plants and animals on land and water, and surprisingly often they directly benefit human beings. If they no longer exist, we have lost an opportunity of understanding them.
This was considered a priority by Ajarn Adul Wichiencharoen, former rector of Thammasat University. In the Adul Wichiencharoen Room of the Pridi Banomyong Library is shelved a newly acquired book, donated through the generosity of Ajarn Adul, who worked for many decades to preserve the natural and cultural wonders of the Kingdom. Last Chance for Thailand’s Wildlife edited by Somchai Charoenwanich, was published in 1994. Other books in the TU Libraries collection also provide information about endangered species in Thailand. They include A Profile of the Endangered Species of Thailand, by James R. Bain and Stephen R. Humphrey and Private Contributions Towards the Provision of Public Goods: the Conservation Of Thailand’s Endangered Species by Orapan Nabangchang. Science databases available for readers at the TU Libraries also offer up-to-the-minute information about the situation. Sometimes action, however well-meant, is taken too late. For example, of the fifteen endangered species mentioned above, the Schomburgk’s deer is already extinct, and the Javan and Sumatran rhinoceros are locally extinct in Thailand. In June 2016, the Thai cabinet approved a proposal to add four marine species to the reserved animals list: the whale shark, Bryde’s whale, Omura’s whale, and the leatherback turtle.
As a publication by the Wildlife Conservation Development and Extension Section, Wildlife Conservation Division, Royal Forest Department, explains, Thailand is
the ecological crossroads of Southeast Asia. Thailand, because of its unique position as the link between the Indochinese and Malay Peninsula, has an amazingly rich and varied native fauna. Many species of birds, mammals and reptiles from the cool, drier climes of northern Asia reach their southernmost limit in Thailand; similarly, a large number of species from the hot, moist tropics find there northern most suitable habitat in Thailand. The Asian elephant, tiger, leopard and clouded leopard, kouprey, gaur, Javan and Sumatran rhinoceros, wild water buffalo, several species of langur, white-handed and pileated gibbons, Malayan tapir, sarus crane, many species of hornbills and five species of marine turtles are just a small part of Thailand’s beautiful and exotic native fauna…For many centuries, humans lived at this ecological crossroads with the resident fauna with little effect on wildlife populations. Pre-technological human societies were small land concentrated in the most accessible areas of suitable agricultural land. Wildlife was protected by virtue of man’s low numbers, use of primitive weapons and the inaccessibility of most wildlife habitat. With the advent of modern technology in the twentieth century, Thailand’s human population has increased greatly. Following World War II, sophisticated land clearing equipment, allterrain vehicles and automatic weapons become available, and were focused on Thailand’s vast wilderness. Previously inaccessible wildlife habitat was cleared for lumber and put to agricultural production of cash crops. Wildlife was hunted excessively to satisfy increasing international market demands. By the middle of this century, it had become obvious to many that without legal protection, Thailand would lose its once rich natural heritage. Through the efforts of concerned Thai citizens and legislators, backed by the influence of some Thai conservation societies, Thailand’s first environmental law, The Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Act, was passed on December 26, 1960. Until now Wildlife Reservation and Protection Act B.E. 2535 (1992) was legislated on February 19, 1992 to take place The Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Act B.E. 2504. The Act provided for the establishment of lists of reserved and protected wild animals limitted hunting, controlled trade in wild animal products, allowed for the preservation of wildlife habitat and provided for the creation of the Wildlife Conservation Division within the Royal Forest Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.
(All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)