"Expedition Everest: Mission Himalayas" is a scientific and cultural journey to explore one of the planet's richest and most biologically diverse regions. The expedition begins today with a month-long exploration in China where scientists, conservationists, Imagineers from Disney and filmmakers from Discovery Networks will join renowned biologists, botanists and other technical experts from Conservation International's (CI) Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) as they search for new plant and animal species not yet known to science.
"There is still so much that we don't know about our planet and especially in this area of China that waits to be discovered and explored," said Leeanne Alonso, Ph.D., vice president of field assessment research and monitoring at Conservation International. "The information we collect during the RAP expedition will help the region's decision-makers develop plans and strategies to conserve the diversity of life in this unique region."
Since 1990, RAP scientists have discovered hundreds of new plant and animal species, and RAP data have contributed to the creation of several national parks throughout the world.
CI's RAP program deploys expert teams of international and host-country scientists to conduct rapid inventories of the species of animals and plants in areas that are poorly known but potentially important biodiversity conservation sites. Taking part in this RAP are Polish scientist Piotr Naskrecki, Ph.D., director of the Invertebrate Diversity Initiative at CI and specialist in orthoptera (insects); Rebecca Pradham, a botanist from Bhutan with extensive knowledge about the plants of the Himalayas; and U.S. scientist Jim Sanderson, Ph.D., a specialist known for his work in studying small cats using radio-telemetry technology.
Also joining the expedition is Anne Savage, Ph.D., Disney conservation biologist and Russ Mittermeier, Ph.D., president of Conservation International, both experts on primates. During their visit to China, they will study the golden monkey, a threatened species in China. "At Disney's Animal Kingdom, we are committed to conservation not only inside our park, but in habitats around the globe," said Savage.
While scientists are following animal tracks and cataloging plants, Disney Imagineers will be researching local beliefs and myths to enrich the storyline for Expedition Everest, a massive attraction under development at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida. To further explore new opportunities for linking culture and environmental protection, Disney will research the legend of the yeti, a creature whose traditional role as "protector of the sacred" has been integral to preservation in this region.
One of the world's hotspots, the Mountains of Southwest China stretch over 161,500 miles and are the most botanically rich temperate region in the world with an estimated 12,000 plant species, including 3,500 found nowhere else. The golden monkey, giant and red pandas are among the threatened species found only in this hotspot.
The biodiversity hotspots are 34 regions worldwide where 75 percent of the planet's most threatened mammals, birds, and amphibians survive within habitat covering just 2.3 percent of the Earth's surface (roughly equivalent to the combined areas of the five largest U.S. states). This habitat originally covered 15.7 percent of the Earth's surface, an area equivalent in size to Russia and Australia combined. New hotspot analysis shows that an estimated 50 percent of all vascular plants and 42 percent of terrestrial vertebrates exist only in these 34 hotspots.
Results from the expedition will be shared with numerous entities, such as the Chinese government, environmental organizations and scientists to develop strategies to protect the unique species of the region. At Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, the findings will be incorporated into the Expedition Everest attraction, a high-speed adventure that combines a roller coaster-like thrill with the mysterious legends of the Himalayan region. Expedition Everest will open in 2006 in the Asia section of the park.
Discovery Networks will accompany CI and Disney to document the expedition's journey, tracking scientists searching for signs of new species, exploring the Himalayan landscapes and interviewing local officials, scientists and residents about their experiences and sightings of the region's unusual creatures. Renowned for compelling, real-world storytelling, Discovery will share these unique stories with millions of viewers.
"Expedition Everest: Mission Himalayas" builds upon a long-time relationship between CI and Disney to support biodiversity conservation. Since 1995, Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund (DWCF) and the Walt Disney Company Foundation have contributed to several CI initiatives including a Global Amphibian Assessment, the protection of Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains, and a conservation project in Botswana. Additionally, Russell A. Mittermeier, Ph.D., president of CI, is a member of Disney's Animal Kingdom Advisory Board.
The Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund supports non-profit conservation organizations focused on endangered animals and their habitats. The fund will specifically be involved in this expedition to work with local eastern Himalayan scientists and students to identify as many specimens as possible.