A Tiny Rare Snail In Malaysia Has Big Consequences For Global Cement Giant

For the first time ever, a ‘new’ species has been named after the company that has the power to either conserve or destroy it. It’s a snail and, although small, has the potential to leave a permanent legacy for a giant global business.
The snail in question was recently discovered living on an isolated limestone hill called Gunung Kanthan in the northwest of Peninsular Malaysia – its only known home on Earth. Many species with tiny geographical ranges are at particular risk of extinction, but this one more so than many as the only place it has ever been found is in the corner of a limestone quarry run by global cement and aggregates giant Lafarge.
The quarry, or at least those parts of it that have yet to be blown apart to provide material for cement manufacture, has proven a remarkably fertile place for new species. It has recently been the source of three new kinds of plant, a trapdoor spider, another snail and new kind of Bent-toed Gecko. Given the very restricted known distributions of these species, all of them are presumed to be at critical risk of global extinction, and all face threat from further quarrying.
These newcomers on Earth’s register of life are not alone. Across a broad region of tropical Asia new species are being discovered at a very rapid rate. Caves, lakes and gorge forests are among the features that have been found to host species never before known, but which are in many cases vulnerable to being quickly lost.
The naming of new species follows a formal technical process. First the novel life form must be described and shown to be as yet unknown to science. It is then allocated a new two-part name, usually in Latin or Greek. Such names are often chosen to honour a person involved in some way with its discovery, for example the biologist who first found it or a benefactor who funded their work.
Whatever the inspiration for the name, the first part describes the group of closely related species to which it belongs – the genus. In this case a group of snails called Charopa. The second part is specific to the animal, plant, fungi or microbe in question. Executives at Lafarge global headquarters in Paris should take note that the second part of the name allocated by the molusc specialists who named this new creature is lafargei.
Biologists who published the paper naming the new species did so in the most recent issue of Basteria, the journal of the Netherlands Malacological Society. They write “We name this species Charopa lafargei after Lafarge whose declared goals for biodiversity include minimising and avoiding damage to important habitats, minimising and avoiding species mortality and stress, and minimising and reversing habitat fragmentation”.
They added that the company has declared the aim of achieving a “net positive impact on biodiversity” and further justify their choice of name because decisions made by Lafarge “will determine the future existence of this snail.”
The limestone landscapes from which Lafarge is winning aggregates to make cement are evidently of global importance for biodiversity and alongside the broad aim of achieving a ‘net positive impact’ the firm has undertaken some specific steps at Gunung Kanthan that it says are aimed at protecting the unique wildlife. These are, however, believed by conservationists to be insufficient to secure the future of the endangered fauna and flora found there.
Thinking about the company’s long-term reputation and legacy, the head of sustainability at Lafarge may consider taking the following actions. First, get a team of top biologists into the field to do a proper survey of the wildlife found in and around the quarry. This should lead to a series of management recommendations to protect the species restricted to the mine area. All this would be made public and be peer reviewed. Until all this was finished there’d be no further mine expansion.
Once there was agreement among biologists and executives as to a credible plan of action, allocate a budget to make sure these unique species had a long-term future. It’s neither complicated nor expensive and would be exactly the kind of thing the company would have to do were these rare animals and plants discovered in France, for example. All it requires is for Lafarge executives to show some leadership and commitment.
The naming of the snail will hopefully be the catalyst for a credible conservation plan at Gunung Kanthan and lead to Charopa lafargei ultimately being a source of pride and inspiration for Lafarge, rather than a reminder of corporate indifference to the rising tide of extinction that each day gathers more momentum.
This article was first published by The Guardian Monday 25th August 2014.