What do a critically endangered mystery monkey, myriad miniature geckos and the world’s oldest animal cave painting have in common? One answer is that they have all been discovered within the past five years. But given that this is the International Year of Caves and Karst, the main point of interest is not when, but where, they were found. The common denominator is limestone.
Ask the average armchair naturalist to name a biodiversity hotspot teeming with an abundance of species and the chances are they’ll plump for a tropical rainforest such as the Amazon, or perhaps a coral reef if they’re marine enthusiasts.
Anyone posing that same question to Dr Tony Whitten, an FFI legend whose untimely death in 2017 deprived the conservation community of a true great, would have been treated to the spectacle of a grown man bouncing around like Tigger while waxing lyrical about limestone outcrops and the limitless life forms that they harbour.
Bear in mind that this was a man who had gazed in wonder at Wilson’s bird-of-paradise in deepest, darkest West Papua; a conservationist who had cut his teeth on close encounters with Kloss’s gibbons. And yet, this unapologetic champion of the unloved and undervalued had a soft spot for spiders and snails and was arguably at his happiest cavorting with creepy crawlies and other cave critters.
That infectious enthusiasm was well founded. Karst – which is basically a geological term for landscape underlain by limestone that has been eroded into towers and other spectacular rock formations – covers an estimated 20% of the world’s land surface. It is home to an incredibly rich diversity of animals and plants, above and below ground.