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Taxonomic capacity building in support of biodiversity conservation in Thailand

Thailand, with an area of over 500,000 km2, has borders with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia, and lies between the northern Indochinese and southern Sundaic biogeographical regions. Plant species, especially orchids, have been well studied, with 80% of the estimated flora already identified, but only 20% of the estimated 87,500 indigenous animal species have been identified, of which almost 50% are insects. The only general representation of insects is in a private museum, and Thai authorities now wish to remedy the situation by setting up reference collections of the country’s insects in a new depository of natural history.

Biodiversity in Thailand is at risk for several reasons: deforestation for timber, mining and agriculture, shrimp farming and pollution in marine habitats, industrial, agricultural and domestic pollution of freshwater habitats, and pressures exerted by an ever increasing human population. Half of Thailand’s natural forests disappeared in the last 30 years. Although national parks and wildlife sanctuaries have been set up, more than 20% of the country’s 56,000 villages are located in forest reserves and therefore affect biodiversity. Almost 500 plant and over 500 animal species are now endangered. Efforts to preserve biodiversity have increased over the last 15 years with international support. However, sales of the more flamboyant insects such as butterflies and beetles that have been captured in the wild are on the increase. Only a handful of specialists are able to identify those that are threatened with extinction, and so recent legislative measures to control their sale are not fully effective.

Recent legislation has provided policies for the conservation of environmentally protected areas that include three distinct habitats: watersheds, unique natural ecosystems that are sensitive and vulnerable to destruction from human impact and areas with aesthetic value. A protected area system covering large areas of the country has been set up in which the the principles of the Convention of Biological Diversity are being implemented. Thus, the legal and administrative frameworks are in place and functioning and are being linked with limited biological research, mainly in universities. A major constraint to research on insects, whether it be to assess their species richness, study their value as plant pollinators or precisely target control of species of agricultural, medical or veterinary importance is the dearth of publications and the absence of modern and comprehensive references collections essential for their identification.

In order to stimulate and continue research in the above areas, Thai scientists need to achieve greater independence from the major reference centres of insects located largely in Europe and North America by setting up their own national collections. Steps were recently taken by two senior Thai scientists, Prof. Visut Baimai (Director of the Center for Vectors and Vector-borne Diseases) at Mahidol University in Bangkok and Dr. Rampa Rattanarithikul (Research Entomologist, Museum of World Insects) in Chiangmai, to initiate national collections of insects in a new depository in Chiangmai. This collection will be based on the system used in the Natural History Museum in London, which is in the vanguard of world taxonomy and has very comprehensive collections of diverse families of insects from the Oriental Region. Funding for this three year project that started on 1st June 2004 has been provided by the Darwin Initiative (DEFRA- Deparment of Environment Food and Rural Affairs, UK) and the QSBG.