Message from the Executive Director

Species—the base currency of biodiversity conservation

The olm (Proteus anguinus) is a pale, blind salamander that lives deep in cave systems found in the karst formations of the Balkans, part of the Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot. Even though the olm is the world’s largest exclusively cave-dwelling animal, at 20–30 centimeters long, detecting its presence in dark, cramped habitats poses serious challenges. Therefore, its only known wild populations were in a few locations in Slovenia, Croatia, where it is most common, as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Italy.

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CEPF has been supporting a project conducted by Gregor Aljancic and Špela Goricki from the Tular Cave Laboratory at the Society for Cave Biology in Slovenia, to get a more accurate count of olms, a globally threatened species, through the detection of environmental DNA, also known as e-DNA, found in cave water. Using this modern tool, the presence of olms has been reported from seven new sites in Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and, for the first time, in Montenegro.

It is great news that there are more olms in the wild than we previously thought, and we could end the story here. In this era of social media and reading via mobile devices, brevity is considered golden. But as it often happens in conservation storytelling, we sell our audience short by not providing some vital context: how nature contributes to human well-being.

In the case of the olm, this blind creature is opening our eyes to the importance of reducing pollution and preventing it from further degrading groundwater in this part of the water-stressed Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot. The olm and the 5 million people of the Balkans who live within this part of the hotspot share a need that is critical to their mutual survival and for which there is no substitute: clean water. The olm can survive for 10 years without eating and may live up to 100 years in total, but it is still dependent on the regular flow of clean fresh water. The water in its subterranean habitat is also the drinking water for people living in the area, and is hugely important to the region’s primary economic driver: tourism. In this story, the olm plays the role of the canary in a coal mine. If it is not thriving, it may signal a water problem that will affect people and the economy as well.

Today a majority of people live in urban areas and tend to forget that human society is highly dependent on nature to prosper. Species are the main and indispensable currency of functioning natural systems that humanity relies on for their survival. Some, like the olm, provide an early warning of environmental problems that may impact humans. Other species are essential for food and agriculture through pollination or contribution to soil fertility, or contain the components of vital medicines. Some may simply offer us beauty and a sense of peace.

The mission of CEPF is to conserve biodiversity—the amazing variety of the world’s species. As a result, the portfolio of projects funded by CEPF and executed by civil society groups engaged in protecting the world’s biodiversity hotspots factor in species, habitats, ecosystem services, and economic and cultural valuation of nature. All this, with species conservation as the core.

Let’s show we care for species by taking an interest in and telling their full stories, paying attention to their unique characteristics and individual and collective roles in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Through such stories, we promote behavior respectful of the intrinsic, aesthetic, cultural and economic values of the flora and fauna with which we share the planet, and we help ensure our future together.

– Olivier Langrand,
CEPF executive director

Photo Credits

Olivier Langrand. © Nicholas Karlin.
Olms. © Gregor Aljančič.
Eurema butterflies, Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia. © Jeremy Holden.
Liberian woman. © Conservation International/photo by Mike Matarasso.
Rhino, South Africa. © Steve Slater.