The common names of the species that likely inhabit the remote Xe Sap National Protected Area in Southern Laos sound almost mythical: Chinese Serow, Annamite-Striped Rabbit, Saola, Annamite dark muntjac. These species’ elusive nature also lends credence to their folkloric status. GWC Associate Conservation Scientist Andrew Tilker set out to capture photographic evidence of the large mammals in one of the most unexplored protected areas in Southeast Asia. What he found didn’t disappoint.
“The cameras allowed us to get intimate glimpses of the mammalian biodiversity in the Annamite Mountains of Indochina—scenes that are otherwise seldom seen in these dense jungles,” Tilker says. “Together the camera trap videos indicate that the tropical forests of Xe Sap may harbor important populations of conservation-priority species.”
Tilker and a team from World Wildlife Fund set out 28 cameras on photo mode and five GWC cameras on video mode in Xe Sap, which borders Vietnam. Their primary goal was to assess the likelihood of Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), dubbed the Asian unicorn, in this area by looking at the health of the larger ungulate community. The Saola is one of the rarest mammals in the world and found only in the Annamites. Although Tilker and the team didn’t capture video of the Saola, they did manage to capture what may be the only video ever taken of another Asian hoofstock species in this part of Laos—the dark muntjac, a small deer with short antlers that scientists know virtually nothing about.
“I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the video,” Tilker says. “Annamite dark muntjac aren’t nearly as rare as, say, Saola, but they’re still not easy to come across. Besides that, this little guy is one of the most mysterious and elusive deer in the Annamites. Or the world, for that matter. The dark muntjac is an information black hole.”
Tilker adds that the muntjac has a checkered history. In the early 1930s, Teddy Roosevelt’s son collected a small dark muntjac from Laos and it was described as a new species (Muntiacus rooseveltorum)…then forgotten. In 1997, another small dark muntjac was described as new species from central Vietnam (Muntiacus truongonensis)…then again mostly forgotten (little research has yet to be devoted to this mysterious deer). Scientists believe that there are at least two species in the group, though this remains unconfirmed. No one really knows just how many species there are of dark muntjac. Other questions also need to be answered: What is the dark muntjac’s distribution within the Annamites? What are its habitat preferences? What does it feed on? How susceptible is it to poaching?
“Resolving the dark muntjac taxonomy and assessing the conservation needs for these species is one of the most pressing conservation issues in this region,” Tilker says.
In addition to the rare footage of the dark muntjac, the team recorded video of a goat-like ungulate called the Chinese Serow (Capricornis milneedwardsii), Stump-Tailed Macaque (Macaca arctoides) and Asiatic brush-tailed porcupine (Atherurus macrourus). Until recently, Xe Sap supported a diverse group of large mammals, including the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), Tiger (Panthera tigris) and Dhole (Cuon alpinus). However, logging has degraded much of the habitat and illegal hunting has decimated wildlife populations. GWC recently created the Walter Steven Sechrest Endowment for Wildlife Protection in part to combat poaching in this part of the world.
Tilker says that the intense poaching happening throughout the Annamites has also likely resulted in the steep declines of muntjac populations compared to their historic levels. He calls for additional research and protection of this special place, home to some of the world’s most unique and mysterious species. Tilker says he believes that Xe Sap might be a last refuge in the region for Annamite endemics such as the dark muntjac and Saola.
“Not many people even know about the Annamites, which are undersold in the press,” Tilker says. “Unexplored jungles, unknown species, and more. The jungles of Central and South America are tame compared to the wilderness of this place.”
Read more about Tilker’s adventures and the Xe Sap National Protected Area on Saola Blog: https://saolablog.wordpress.com/