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Coiba, the largest island off the Central America's Pacific coast, is a treasure trove of new species. In May 2002 alone, seven species unknown to science were discovered there.

Some of the island's species, especially its corals, produce chemicals that could lead to new drugs. As Tina Butler reports in this article, the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) Program recently discovered a soft coral species that could help fight malaria. 

The programme is providing a training ground for Panama's scientists and helping to build the infrastructure needed to research and develop drugs locally.

However, looking for species with medicinal properties — or bioprospecting — can be challenging for a developing country. Issues of who owns the intellectual property for such discoveries and how the benefits derived from them should be shared are unresolved in many parts of the world.

Despite the medicinal promise Coiba holds, much depends on how well the island's ecosystem is managed.

Although Coiba was declared a national park in 1991, it remains threatened by fishing and agricultural waste. Scientists need to persuade the government of the island's potential to ensure that its resources are properly managed, says Butler.

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