Endangered ‘barking deer’ strikes a pose for conservationists
The large-antlered muntjac photographed in Cambodia is among the endangered mammals fueling a call for conservation breeding
The spots on the back of the large-antlered muntjac may have given it away as a fawn, but the photo of the deer suckling from its mother served as confirmation.
Photographs of the moment are the first known images of a large-antlered muntjac fawn in Cambodia. Taken only months after the critically endangered deer was first documented in the Kingdom, the photo was part of a biodiversity survey in Virachey National Park.
More than 80 camera traps documented several endemic species, some with the same critically endangered designation.
“The fact that muntjac are present in Cambodia is of great relevance from a conservation perspective,” said Pablo Sinovas, flagship species manager for Fauna & Flora International in Cambodia.
“This is especially true considering where the muntjacs were found. Virachey is not only one of the largest remaining forests in Indochina, we now have proof that the landscape harbours the most threatened and endangered species in the region,” Sinovas said.
Muntjacs are often referred to as “barking deer” because of their guttural call. There are 13 recognised muntjac species. The large-antlered muntjac is named for its bulkier antlers and can be recognised by a shorter tail than other deer.
While conservationists celebrate the sightings, snares plague large-antlered muntjac populations in Vietnam and Laos. Wildlife biologists fear without human intervention the muntjac will follow in the hoof prints of the saola, another critically endangered, endemic species.
Concerns over the extinction of these two species, which were only discovered by scientists three decades ago, have prompted conservation-breeding program efforts.
“These sightings should give us hope that the species survives, but they also present us with the challenge of trying to save the species,” said Minh Nguyen, a researcher at Colorado State University. “The photos should send the message we still have hope, but that our work is just beginning.”
In collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, Fauna & Flora established camera traps across seven separate grids within the national park in northeastern Cambodia. The images of the fawn were taken in March 2021.
“Virachey is the largest national park in Cambodia and the sections we studied were relatively unexplored,” said Jeremy Parker, country director of Cambodia for Fauna & Flora. “It is fascinating to see them in wet, tropical evergreen forests instead of their more mountainous habitat.”
The cameras also documented critically endangered sunda pangolins, vulnerable sunda clouded leopards and sun bears, the near threatened Asiatic golden cat and the Siamese fireback.
“This is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and there is a lot of potential for conservation collaboration within this transboundary area between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia,” Sinovas said. “Especially if we continue to learn about the species in Virachey, which is at the core of this transboundary protected landscape.”
Photo gallery of species in Virachey. Photos courtesy of Fauna & Flora International
The large-antlered muntjac was discovered by scientists in 1994. Though it was likely recognised and known by communities in the Annamite mountain range, which straddles the border between Laos and Vietnam.
The large-antlered muntjac is the only muntjac variety listed as “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which tracks threatened species. Hunting was considered a primary danger for the large-antlered muntjac in its last assessment, which led to an elevated threat rating in 2016.
IUCN said the muntjac is often prey to a “thriving hunting and wildlife trading culture.” Hunters often do not target the muntjac, but rather seek “any and all species with marketable meat and products.” This non-specificity makes “regional hunting practices a peculiarly strong driver” of extinctions.
Before beginning her doctoral research at Colorado State on fish, wildlife and conservation biology, Nguyen grew up on the Vietnam side of the Annamites.
“The snaring crisis is the biggest challenge facing wildlife conservation in Southeast Asia,” Nguyen said. “The theory of my thesis is that the large-antlered muntjac is the most snare-vulnerable species in the Annamites.”
The size and movement of the large-antlered muntjac makes the species especially susceptible to the snaring common within its range, according to Nguyen. She studies muntjac behaviour and collects data on snare types to help forest rangers set tangible goals for snare removals.
In essence, Nguyen wants to determine how many snares are too many for the muntjac to survive.
“While we can’t find every snare, we can find enough, or at least prevent enough from being set, to save the species,” she said, adding the photos are likely to trigger conservation efforts.
“These photos are a good sign we still have hope to conserve the species, but the photos are also proof we carry the burden of trying to save them,” Nguyen said.
Gallery of images of large-antlered muntjac. Photos: courtesy of Fauna & Flora International
With so few sightings since its discovery, Nguyen said little is known about the large-antlered muntjac’s role in the ecosystem.
“We are disrupting, destroying and causing species to disappear without ever knowing their function in the ecosystem,” Nguyen said. “We haven’t been able to fully understand the role of the large-antlered muntjac in its ecosystem but we are already at risk of losing it.”
Seven of the 13 muntjac species are considered “Data Deficient” by IUCN, meaning not enough information is available to properly assess the animal.
Without direct human intervention through conservation breeding, Nguyen fears large-antlered muntjacs will become as rare as the saola.
“The saola is the most critically endangered animal in the Annamites. If we don’t act through a conservation-breeding program, it will be the first to go extinct in the coming years,” Nguyen said. “I worry the large-antlered muntjac will follow.”
The saola, like the large-antlered muntjac, was only discovered by scientists in the 1990s.
Dubbed “Asia’s unicorn,” the saola has been designated as “critically endangered” since its discovery. The saola is unique within its biological Bovidae family because it is the sole bovid within the Pseudoryx genus.
The last known photograph of a saola was taken nearly a decade ago in Vietnam, which was the first image of the animal taken in 15 years.
A saola has not been photographed since.
“It is very likely the saola has always existed at low densities but there is no doubt human disturbance, through hunting and deforestation, is driving multiple species, like the saola, towards a downwards population trend,” said Lorraine Scotson, CEO of The Saola Foundation for Annamite Mountains Conservation.
The foundation is focused on finding the saola. But these human pressures have made an already difficult task even harder. Within the next year, the foundation hopes to establish new tracking methods, such as DNA testing kits and dog detection programs.
“If we don’t find saola, we can’t save saola. We are trying to find that first saola, who can then teach us how to find and ultimately capture others,” Scotson said. “We don’t know categorically this is the only option, but it is hard to see any other way.”
The conservation effort for the saola operates under the assumption the critically endangered species is not meeting and reproducing at a sustainable rate in the wild, Scotson said.
“If that assumption is correct, then it doesn’t matter if you go out there with as much law enforcement as you like to clear snares and arrest poachers,” Scotson said. “If you’re completely successful in stopping hunting, all that will allow those individuals to do is grow old and die.”
New detection methods are among the first steps in a conservation-breeding programme advised by the Saola Working Group, which is part of the Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group overseen by the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN.
The goal of conservation breeding is to capture endangered wildlife and facilitate reproduction before releasing individual animals into the wild.
“Bringing animals into captivity is a somewhat controversial step in some circles,” said Andrew Tilker, a member of the Saola Working Group and Asian species officer for Re:wild, a conservation organisation. “The reason it seems like a drastic step is because in many ways it is.”
“The conservation situation in protected areas in Vietnam and Laos is so dire that the only way to save many of the species is to take them out of the wild and put them in a conservation facility,” Tilker said.
Conservationists, like Tilker, distinguish “conservation breeding” from “captive breeding” because there is no other intent in breeding wild-caught animals other than to save the species from extinction. Whereas captive breeding can be done for commercial purposes.
“In some ways it seems like an admission of failure, rightly or wrongly,” Tilker said. “But if we don’t initiate these bolder initiatives that involve conservation-breeding for saola, we will certainly lose the species.”
The reason it seems like a drastic step is because in many ways it is”Andrew Tilker, member of the Saola Working Group and Asian species officer for Re:wild
The construction of a conservation-breeding facility in Vietnam’s Bạch Mã National Park will hopefully begin in 2022 after years of delay, Tilker said.
“We want to use the facility to establish conservation-breeding populations for a suite of Annamite endemics following the saola in terms of the path to extinction,” said Tilker, who is also chair of IUCN’s Large-antlered Muntjac Working Group.
With the large-antlered muntjac on a similar trajectory as the saola, Tilker hopes to eventually develop a conservation breeding population of muntjacs at the Bạch Mã facility.
When it comes to conservation breeding, modern practices believe the short-term consequence of not acting, which is often extinction, outweighs long-term considerations.
The effects of conservation breeding on wild populations is still being studied.
A 2018 research paper found “releasing captive-born individuals into the wild can have long-lasting and negative demographic and genetic effects” if conservation-breeding programs do not try to prevent issues such as genetic adaptation to captivity.
These concerns will be addressed when the facility is operational, Tilker said. For now, especially with critically endangered species as rare as the saola and large-antlered muntjac, Tilker said the focus needs to remain on getting a male and breeding female into captivity.
“We have a small window to save these Annamite endemic species. It is not too late, even for saola and large-antlered muntjacs, but that window is rapidly closing,” Tilker said. “The window for this is in the next five, maybe 10 years. We need to ramp up our efforts if we are going to have saolas and muntjacs for future generations.”
Slideshow of species in Virachey. Photos: courtesy of Fauna & Flora International