Five years living on the EDGE

The EDGE of Existence programme set up to save the world’s weirdest and most threatened creatures celebrates its 5th birthday.

After six expeditions into the wild, five species captured on camera for the first time, three species rediscovered, and one entirely new animal discovered, the EDGE of Existence conservation programme has packed a lot into the last five years.

Launched by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in 2007, the EDGE of Existence programme was created after scientists developed a new method of scoring animals based on their genetic and physical differences from other species on the planet.

Species are given a score based on their degree of unique evolutionary history (Evolutionary Distinctiveness) weighted by conservation urgency (Global Endangerment). The world’s most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species are not only on the verge of extinction but are also unique in the way they look, live and behave. High scoring species range from the poorly-known – purple frogs and pearl bubble corals – to the more familiar pygmy hippos and pandas.

After half a decade chasing around the world after some of the planet’s most elusive, threatened and downright bizarre animals there have been both triumphs and tribulations.

From the rediscovery of Attenborough’s echidna – a rare egg-laying mammal long thought to have been extinct, to capturing the first ever photos of wild pygmy hippopotamus in Liberia to the discovery of a potentially new species of elephant shrew and capturing the first footage of the rare purple frog, it’s been a rollercoaster ride for the EDGE team.

In five years they have also trained 26 “EDGE Fellows” from 17 countries around the world, who work to protect the extraordinary species in their own countries. It is hoped that these “early-career” conservationists will go on to be instrumental in the protection of EDGE species over the coming years.

There have been disappointments though. The Yangtze River dolphin (baiji) was the highest ranked EDGE mammal in 2007, meaning it was the most unique and endangered animal on the planet. Just seven months later it was declared functionally extinct – the first large vertebrate to go extinct in 50 years and the only species of cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise) ever to be driven to extinction by human activity.

EDGE Programme Manager Carly Waterman said: “When we launched the list of the top 100 EDGE mammals, we realised that over two thirds of those on the list were receiving little or no conservation attention. The situation is even bleaker for the EDGE amphibian and coral species.

“Since we started our work we’ve achieved measurable conservation gains for more than 20 species but still have a long way to go to reach our goal of securing the future for all top 100 EDGE species.

“Once these unique species are lost, a whole branch of the world’s evolutionary tree is gone forever. We must not let that happen.”

The next expedition will be to Panama to assess the status of the pygmy three-toed sloth, the world’s smallest and most threatened sloth species.

Carly added: “It may be too late for the baiji, but with the help of their global community of supporters, the EDGE team is determined that the world’s most extraordinary species receive the attention they deserve.”

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