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The Large-antlered muntjac — Southeast Asia’s mystery deer (Commentary)

  • 12 species of muntjac, the so-called barking deer because of its unique auditory calls, are found only in Asia. The Large-antlered muntjac is Critically Endangered with members of its scant, rarely seen population inhabiting the rugged Annamites Range bordering the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Vietnam and Cambodia.
  • One of the biggest dangers to muntjacs is snaring, a hunting method used widely across Indochina. No one knows how many tens or hundreds of thousands of snares clutter Southeast Asia. But rangers in one Cambodian national park found 27,714 snares in 2015 alone — 7 snares per square kilometer, or 17.5 per square mile.
  • If muntjacs are to be preserved, greater public awareness of their plight is required. On Vietnam’s Dalat Plateau and in Lao’s Nakai–Nam Theun National Protected Area, conservation appears possible, and scientists hope to garner better population density estimates in relation to the snaring threat. Captive breeding may be needed.
  • This story is the second in a series by biologist Joel Berger written in conjunction with colleagues in an effort to make seriously endangered animals far better known to the public. This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
A male Large-antlered muntjac checks the status of a female.* Image © SWG/WCA/ICBF/Khammouane PAFO and DAFO.

A blue whale has a big heart the size of an adult wild yak. Everyone knows the plight of blue whales — as everyone likewise knows the plight of tigers, elephants and pandas. But few know the threats to wild yaks. And even fewer know the risks faced by Southeast Asia’s Large Antlered Muntjac, or Bhutan’s national mammal, the takin. These big mammals too have heart, yet like so many species, they slip toward extinction in obscurity. This is the second story in a series, as told by scientist Joel Berger and colleagues, profiling threatened unsung large mammals, giving voice to their secrets and need.

In the unlikely event someone walks up to you later today and asks: “When you think about deer, what do you imagine?”, how would you answer?

Depending on your home territory and lifestyle, you might visualize a 12-point trophy buck mounted on a hunting lodge wall, a venison dinner, a voracious gobbler of your garden, Disney’s Bambi, or ground up velvet antlers sold in a vial as an aphrodisiac. Or maybe you flashed on the wild beauty of tear-drop eyes, upraised ears, and unabated curiosity.

Some 50 species comprise the broader family of deer (Cervidae), a number representing more than 20% of the world’s ungulates (mammals with hooves), and they occupy ecological niches in many biomes. Cervids range from the humid tropical forests of Southeast Asia, to the cool temperate rainforests of remote Patagonia, and high plateaus straddling politically contested military zones of the western Himalayan realm.

Two groupings, Cervus elaphus and C. canadensis, are perhaps most familiar to people, having had the greatest geographical success, spanning four continents, and are so similar they were once considered a single species, though now are separate. Today, from Mexico to Canada, they’re known as elk, or wapiti. In eastern Tibet, they go by the name shou, which climb to 5,100 meters (16,700 feet). In Europe, they’re called red deer and browse seaweed and consume shorebird eggs along the Scottish coast. In Africa’s Atlas Mountains (Morocco), the Barbary stag was eaten by lions. In Iran, they’re called maral; in Kashmir the hangul.

When we — the two authors of this article — think “deer,” the words rarity, mystery, and discovery jump to mind, labels that apply to the dozen or so species dubbed “muntjacs,” about 20-25% of all of the world’s species of deer.

A browsing Large-antlered muntjac. Image © SWG/WCA/ICBF/DOF/BCC/Khammouane PAFO and DAFO.

Introducing the little known muntjacs

There are the widespread Red muntjacs (split into the northern and southern red), whose ranges sprawl from Borneo to eastern Pakistan, and from Sri Lanka and the western Ghats of India into the Bhutanese Himalayas up to 3,700 meters (12,000+ feet).

However, most muntjac species have more restricted distribution, with some only recently coming to the attention of scientists. Indeed, it was less than three decades ago when the Annamite Range — a biologically extraordinary, rugged, tropical cordillera stretching in a sweeping north-south arc along the border of Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), Vietnam and Cambodia — was visited by field biologists who then brought their findings to the Western world.

Reports of new species rapidly emerged, including such sensations as the Saola, Annamite striped rabbit, and Large-antlered muntjac. Also recorded for the first time by science was a smaller species of muntjac — the Truong Son, reported in April 1997 by researchers from Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Da Nang University, and the World Wildlife Fund. Another species located in a remote part of northern Myanmar was also recently confirmed.

Even more good news: Roosevelts barking deer (or Roosevelts muntjac), initially collected in the 1920’s, has been rediscovered; its continued existence had not been verified for seven decades until confirmed in 1996 by two American scientists, William Robichaud and George Schaller. Additional muntjac species might still await scientific discovery in Southeast Asia’s remaining wildlands.

A species in the Roosevelts’ muntjac group. Image © SWG/WCA/ICBF/DOF/Khammouane PAFO and DAFO.

All about muntjacs

Muntjacs are referred to as barking deer because they vocalize loudly with distinct calls. Both sexes bark — typically when unknown stimuli trigger a warning response, behavior likely to connote danger to other muntjacs.

Muntjacs as a group of species share other common traits. Males of most species grow small antlers; females do not. Males have elongate protruding canines used in combat against other males, presumably in intense competition for females, although females too in a few species possess such canines.

But there’s much we don’t know about the entire suite of muntjac species, especially concerning behavior, ecology, and demography. Females may choose males based on antler and canine size, or fighting prowess, though Roosevelts and Borneo’s Yellow muntjacs have fine-haired antlers so tiny they might not even be visible to females.

Muntjacs are relatively solitary, and because they are primarily nocturnal and shy, they are challenging to study and population status is largely uncertain. Finding ways to watch them isn’t straightforward. Even more difficult, and a more pressing task, concerns finding the means to achieve effective protection.

Some muntjac conservation protections were implemented as far back as 1962 when leader Ho Chi Minh promoted the establishment of Vietnam’s first protected area, Cuc Phuong National Park. He suggested “rung la vang,” that forests are gold, implying that environmental protection is money in the bank and a wise investment in the future.

That being said, the dozen known muntjac species are under varying levels of threat today. For example, the IUCN lists the Southern red muntjac (Muntiacus muntjac) as Least Threatened, the Black muntjac (Muntiacus crinifrons) as Vulnerable, while the little seen and still little studied Large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) is Critically Endangered, with its range and population uncertain, though it seems “tied to the evergreen and semi-evergreen forests of the Annamites.”

Large-antlered muntjacs were assuredly recognized, hunted and served up, for millennia by indigenous people whose villages straddle the mountainous borders of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao PDR. And this trophy deer was also long known to French hunters in colonial Vietnam, but not to Western scientists.

A tantalizing hint of this cervid didn’t come until 1993, when Rob Timmins and Tom Evans, two intrepid ecologists carried out scientific surveys in Lao. There, they spotted unusual antlers hung in a house close to the Phou Xang He protected area.

That immediately put Timmins on the lookout, and he later spotted his first live Large-antlered muntjac while trekking the Nakai Plateau. Though the female sprinted away from Timmins, he got a sufficiently clear look at her rapidly receding tail to be certain that it differed from other muntjacs.

The fleeing animal, as he described it, was agouti in color (with hair of alternating dark and light bands), and a dark dorsal section. In 1994, Timmins and Evans saw more Large-antlered muntjac trophies displayed in Nakai Plateau villages, and later a live specimen was located not in the wild, but in the Lak Sao Zoo in Lao.

This is the same zoo where scientist Bill Robichaud spotted “Martha,” one of a very few Saola ever closely observed. Robichaud’s photo of a Large-antlered muntjac is also one of the few to reach a global audience, though more recently, camera trap images have made the species better known to the public.

The Saola, one of the last large mammals new to science, discovered in the 1990s. Image by William Robichaud / Wildlife Conservation Society.

Muntjacs at risk

For us two biologists, appreciation of the large-antlered muntjac came by way of different paths. Having never set foot in Southeast Asia, story author Joel Berger’s interest was sparked on a wintry day in Greenland while stuck indoors reading about Southeast Asian biodiversity. Nguyen Thi Anh Minh’s curiosity was more visceral. In June 2015, she had the pleasure of spying a Northern red muntjac gently browsing an open grassy patch in the Annamites. The deer walked, calmly, unafraid but perhaps alerted, ears flitting back and forth. Northern red muntjacs, with their broader range and presumed higher overall population densities, have a greater long-term probability of survival than Large-antlered muntjacs.

Then, on a hot and humid bus trip in April 2016 — riding between the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area (encompassing a 3,445 square kilometer section of the Annamite Range), and on to the adjacent Nakai Plateau, and Vientiane, Lao — Minh Nguyen listened closely as Rob Timmins talked about the Saola, a large mammal last seen in 2013.

Geographical locales of Large-antlered muntjacs. Image by Robert Timmins.

Their discussion set off alarm bells for her about the survival prospects and looming extinction of both the Saola and Large-antlered muntjac — making it a prime interest.

The human threats to Southeast Asian wildlife in general, and the Large-antlered muntjac in particular, stem from insidiously deliberate to inadvertent. Hunters today catch everything that can easily be caught, primarily to sell to middle men in the booming wildlife trade, although some goes to feed their families and for sale in local markets.

So one of the biggest dangers to muntjacs comes from snaring, a hunting method employed widely throughout much of Indochina. Snares are typically made from cheap materials, mainly bicycle cables; strung through the forest. With these cheap traps, hunters harvest meat, organs, bones, and antlers with little investment. No one knows how many tens, or hundreds of thousands, of snares clutter Southeast Asia’s wildland pathways. In Cambodia for instance, rangers in Southern Cardamom National Park found 27,714 snares in 2015 alone within the 4,104 square kilometer (1,585 square mile) protected area; that’s 7 snares per square kilometer, or 17.5 per square mile. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to realize that death by snare is both slow and excruciating.

Virtually all native species face additional challenges. Timber harvesting and mining, along with hydropower dam construction denude the mountains of forest, while new roads increase access to poachers and fragment habitats and wildlife populations.

COVID-19 poses a new, unexpected threat. Pre-pandemic tourism to Vietnam, including to its national parks and other protected areas, had thrived and was a source of conservation dollars, while also generating national pride and helping propel new preservation initiatives. But as the pandemic spread style=”text-decoration: line-through”>s, global travel stalls, and international tourist-generated funding has mostly dried up.

The torturous, slow death of a Large-antlered muntjac by snaring. Image by William Robichaud.

A less predictable human future is potentially bad news for the muntjac. The Saola has largely gone missing — not photographed in nearly a decade, although local villagers occasionally make sightings. And according to Rob Timmins, “the Large-antlered muntjac is known [today] only from the Annamite Mountain Chain and associated hill ranges of Lao PDR, Vietnam and, marginally, eastern Cambodia.” Most records for this species reflect a steeply declining range and population loss.

There is some hope. On Vietnam’s Dalat Plateau and in Lao’s Nakai–Nam Theun National Protected Area, in situ conservation for Large-antlered muntjacs appears possible, and scientists hope to garner better estimates about population densities in relation to the snaring threat through field-based investigations.

The IUCN Deer Specialist Group suggests a captive breeding program for Large-antlered muntjac as an added insurance of the species’ survival, even though such an initiative could be expensive with no certainty of where the money may come from.

While much is known about the world’s deer — such as North America’s white-tailed and North American moose — those of the unsung variety, and especially those newly discovered or rediscovered in Indochina, remain in the shadows. They too are regal. They are worth knowing. And, like Ho Chi Minh’s rung la vang, they are a form of gold worth saving.

Joel Berger is the Barbara-Cox Anthony Chair of Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University and Senior Scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, USA. His books include Extreme Conservation – Life at the Edges of the World (2018), and The Better to Eat You With – Fear in the Animal World (2008), both by University of Chicago Press. He spends much time hiking canyons and mountains with Darwin, his Australian blue heeler.

Nguyen Thi Anh Minh is a PhD student recently accepted into Colorado State University. She holds a Master’s of Science degree from the University of Science, Ho Chi Minh City. Her prior work, in addition to studies of silver langurs and long-tailed macaques, include biodiversity assessment in Southeast Asia involving tracking, monitoring and evaluation of species distributions and abundance, and, learning more about wildlife trade and law enforcement.

A Large-antlered muntjac in the Lak Sao Zoo. Image by © Bill Robichaud.


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Banner image: A curious muntjac male. Image © SWG/WCA/ICBF/Khammouane PAFO and DAFO.

Correction: The photo caption that now reads, “A male Large-antlered muntjac checks the status of a female.” was originally erroneously captioned “A female Large-antlered muntjac and her fawn.” A number of other minor errors occurring in the original article have also been corrected.

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