- Limestone hills often harbor species that are found nowhere else in the world.
- By quarrying limestone hills for raw materials, cement companies are invariably destroying the only habitat of many snails, wiping out entire species at one go, conservationists allege.
- Conservationists are fairly confident that at least three species of snails on Gunung Tenggek and Gunung Sagu are now extinct due to quarrying activities by YTL Cement and other cement companies.
Snails are being blown to extinction. And cement companies are to blame.
By quarrying limestone hills for raw materials, cement companies are invariably destroying the only habitat of many snails, wiping out entire species at one go, conservationists allege.
Take Plectostoma sciaphilum for example. This beautiful, dainty snail, known only from a single limestone hill at Bukit Panching, Pahang, in Peninsular Malaysia, went extinct in mid 2000s when a cement company quarried the hill for limestone. Several other species of the Plectostoma snails — referred to as “microjewels” for their ethereally designed shells — are spiraling towards extinction thanks to quarrying of limestone hills.
In fact, when scientists discovered a new snail species in 2014 on Gunung Kanthan, a limestone hill in northern Malaysia, they named it Charopa lafargei after the international cement company Lafarge that was mining the snail’s only known habitat. The scientists hoped that Lafarge would take notice and prevent the snail’s extinction.
Now, conservationists allege that another Malaysian cement company, YTL Cement, may have caused the extinction of at least three species of rare snails due to limestone quarrying. YTL Cement is part of YTL Corporation that owns foreign companies like Wessex Water in the United Kingdom.
The snail species — the elephant trunk snail (Hypselostoma elephas), Tenggek braided snail (Plectostoma tenggekensis) and towered braided snail (Plectostoma turriforme) — are found only in Gunung Tenggek and Gunung Sagu, two limestone hills in southern Malaysia. All three species are critically endangered. Quarrying of these two hills also threatens the herb Paraboea bakeri found only in these hills.
“The total snail fauna of a limestone hill in the region typically includes some 50 to 100 species, and at least 1,000 invertebrate species,” Jaap Vermeulen, a Dutch naturalist and an expert in limestone biodiversity, told Mongabay. “Without us even noticing, we can safely assume that tens of snail species at least have gone extinct because of the destruction of these hills…and this is not the only isolated limestone hill quarried to destruction in Asia,” he added. “There are hundreds of limestone hills like this one in Asia. Therefore, we are talking about thousands of species that have suffered, or are soon going to suffer a similar fate.”
Concerned about the fate of these critically endangered species, the IUCN Species Survival Commission sent a letter to YTL Cement on 12 January 2015, drawing their attention to the species’ “impending global extinctions”. YTL hasn’t responded to IUCN.
But YTL told Mongabay that the company is involved in the quarrying of Gunung Sagu alone. Gunung Tenggek has also been quarried, but YTL is not involved.
“We would like to put on record that YTL Cement is not involved in the quarrying activities in Gunung Tenggek hill. Meanwhile, we have been investigating the other claims in the article which we take very seriously,” Ralph Dixon, Director of Environmental Investments, YTL, told Mongabay.
Limestone is an essential — and cheap — raw material used in the manufacture of cement. While cement companies often assess the social impacts of limestone quarrying by examining the dust and noise pollution associated with their quarrying activities, they rarely adequately assess their activities’ environmental impacts on biodiversity, conservationists say.
This is especially concerning because limestone hills often harbor species that are found nowhere else in the world. These species adapt to the unique surface or cave environments of the limestone hills, becoming confined to a relatively small area. Many of these limestone-specialized species are small, little-known and seldom included in the lists of protected species, conservationists write in the World Bank book ‘Biodiversity and Cultural Property in the Management of Limestone Resources’.
“In Gunung Kanthan, for example, where we named a snail after cement company Lafarge, there are eight species: three species of trees, three snail species, one gecko and one archaic spider known only from that hill,” Tony Whitten, co-author of the book and a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Cave Invertebrate Specialist Group, told Mongabay. “This is just in 1.6 square kilometers of land.”
Given the rich diversity of unique species in limestone hills, Whitten is fairly confident that the three species of snails on Gunung Tenggek and Gunung Sagu are now extinct.
“If you ask me about a different landscape in another country, I would not be very certain,” he said. “But Malaysia has maintained a detailed record of limestone-restricted biodiversity since 1953. And people here are confident when they talk about species found in these isolated hills and nowhere else.”
Whitten added that the onus of proving that the species may not be extinct lies with the cement company quarrying the limestone hills, in this case YTL Cement, and not conservationists. Lafarge, for example, is currently surveying limestone hills around Gunung Kanthan to confirm whether Charopa lafargei may be found in places other than the northern tip of the hill they are quarrying.
But most cement companies don’t have policies relating to limestone specific biodiversity, Whitten added. Some are probably not even aware of their existence.
Limestone hills will continue to be quarried as long as there is demand for cement. But the impacts of quarrying can be minimized if the companies try, Vermeulen said. “Damage to biodiversity cannot be avoided, but it can be minimized by a careful selection of hills to be quarried,” he added. “Compared to the investments necessary to start a quarrying operation, a biodiversity survey is not expensive.”
According to Vermeulen, small, isolated limestone hills are best left alone. Extinctions and damage to biodiversity can be prevented if a larger hill, or a hill that is part of a large group of hills standing close together, are quarried.
Whitten added that he would like to see cement companies take responsibility for their actions.
“Quite honestly, what I would be content with is just to have the companies come clean and say, yes we are going to destroy these hills, and that yes, that will cause extinction of these species — let the experts come in and rescue the species, maybe put them in zoos or in museums,” Whitten added. “I understand that there may be strategic social or economic reasons for why you may want to make a species go extinct in the wild. But at least be open about it.”
Correction, 7/06/16 1:30 am Eastern: We have updated the article to include a comment from YTL Cement. A previous version of the article stated that YTL was involved in the quarrying of both Gunung Tenggek and Gunung Sagu. However, YTL says that is involved in the quarrying of Gunung Sagu alone, and is investigating the allegations. Gunung Tenggek has also been quarried. But YTL is not involved.
7/07/21 10:10 am Eastern: We have updated the third summary point to indicate that the three snail species may be extinct due to quarrying activities by YTL Cement and other cement companies, not YTL alone.