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In Sumatra, a vulnerable, ‘mythical’ wild goat lives an unknown life

  • The Sumatran serow, a sub-species of the Capricornis sumatraensis goat-antelope, is an animal that’s little-studied and little-understood, according to the handful of researchers interested in it.
  • Scientists don’t know its eating habits or its social organization, have very few photos or videos of it, and have rarely recorded any direct sightings of the elusive animal.
  • The serow shares the same habitat as better-known species such as the Sumatran tiger and the sun bear, but hasn’t attracted anywhere close to the same level of funding for research and conservation activities as these other, “charismatic” animals.
  • Ostensibly protected under Indonesian law, the serow continues to be hunted for food and for traditional medicine, although researchers say there’s a growing awareness among communities about the need to conserve the species.

So far, the Sumatran serow has eluded Pungky Nanda Pratama.

Some villagers tell him the animal, a type of goat-antelope, sleeps in the trees hanging by its horns, or scales mountains by hooking its horns on rocks. But even after five years spent searching for the serow near a volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Pungky has only ever seen its skull.

“It’s like it’s mythical,” says Pungky, 29, a founder of the Sumatran Camera Trap Project, which seeks to capture images of rare animals in their natural habitats. “People just hear about it, but they never get footage of it.”

The Sumatran serow is a sub-species of the mainland serow (Capricornis sumatraensis), which is native to the Himalayas, China and Southeast Asia. It sports a scruffy black pelt and curved-back horns that can be almost as large as its head. In Indonesia, the animal is known as a “forest goat,” while in neighboring Malaysia, it’s called a “desert goat.” A lonely herbivore, it navigates rocky slopes with its hooves, and tends to stay close to a supply of fruits and grasses.

Though the IUCN lists the species’ conservation status as “vulnerable,” little is known about the Sumatran serow, which is one of Southeast’s Asia’s most hunted animals for traditional medicines. In Sumatra and the Thai-Malaysian Peninsula, it shares habitats with mammals that often headline conservation programs. But while more iconic creatures like tigers and sun bears have no trouble attracting attention from photographers and scientists, research has largely skipped over the serow. In Indonesia, a comprehensive study of its population has never been conducted.

Pungky is trying to fill the knowledge gap. Since 2018, he has set up 17 camera traps — motion-sensor devices that quietly switch on when an animal draws near — in Isau-Isau, a 16,000-hectare (40,000-acre) forested volcano in South Sumatra province that became a wildlife reserve in 1978 as a serow habitat.

Beyond Pungky’s domain, a few lucky camera-trap teams have snapped pictures of the serow in the last two years, reigniting interest in the elusive ungulate, or hoofed mammal. Some of the clearest footage was recorded last year in Mount Leuser National Park, in northern Sumatra. In a clip less than a minute long, a male and female serow can be seen approaching the camera and sniffing the ground before disappearing again.

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Across the Malacca Strait, research is also expanding. Last year, Faiznur Ain Ahmad Bakri, a Ph.D. student at Tun Hussein Onn University of Malaysia, published the first discovery of a Sumatran serow in Mount Ledang Johor National Park. She said she didn’t think the animal would make an appearance in her dissertation, but by chance her team’s camera traps captured the lanky bodies of three adults.

“Serow are quite special in my research,” Faiznur told Mongabay. “When we got the videos, everyone was shocked to find that there are serow actually here in the southern part of Malaysia.”

Research on the serow has begun just to identify where it is located, but there are many more questions, Faiznur says. What role does it play in its ecosystem? What are its food habits and social organization like? How many are left?

With so little research in the field, scientists have been divided even on how to classify serows. The Sumatran serow, and five other animals, were once considered to be six separate species, but they were recently reclassified as a single species, the mainland serow, in the wake of new DNA evidence.

In 2019, a hiker who ventured high up a mountain in South Sumatra managed to film a serow grazing. Image courtesy dedi_mukti via Instagram video.

From a conservation perspective, this could have both positive and negative effects. One the one hand, dividing a population into a larger number of species means fewer individuals in each group, creating a perhaps more dire picture of each species’ status in the wild — making it easier to access funding for conservation efforts.

On the other hand, such “species splitting” can arguably increase extinction risks by causing unnecessary losses of genetic variation, if animals seen to be of different species are kept separate when they otherwise would have intermingled.

“We know so little about them,” Faiznur says of the Sumatran serow. “Even when we try to look online, there’s not much. We need to go and find out the truth about these animals.”

The Sumatran serow has eluded researchers for years and they haven't been able to spot them in the wild. They only have confiscated heads of poached serows.
The Sumatran serow has eluded researchers for years and they haven’t been able to spot them in the wild. They only have confiscated heads of poached serows. Image courtesy of the South Sumatra Conservation Agency.

As the serow goes, so goes the tiger

The Sumatran serow has fared better in Malaysia than Indonesia, where the expansion of towns, roads and plantations has fragmented its habitat, separating the animal into smaller and smaller groups.

Despite its protected status, the animal is hunted by poachers. Its large olfactory glands, believed to give it an acute sense of smell, are harvested to be made into oils for traditional medicines. Its meat is also considered a delicacy, though in Malaysia tougher law enforcement has made it harder to find in restaurants.

Demand is more local, less international, according to Chris Shepherd, director of Monitor Conservation Research Society. He says the serow faces a “snaring crisis” across the region, with poachers relying on the looped-wire traps to catch them.

Pungky says coffee plantations are encroaching on serow habitat, especially because both organisms prefer high altitudes. A native of Indonesia’s main central island of Java, Pungky arrived in rural Sumatra as a conservation teacher. Most people he works with, he says, understand that the serow is protected by law, but don’t always understand what that means.

“Being an environmental educator is hard. It’s truly hard,” Pungky says. Locals sometimes react aggressively when they’re told they can’t go near serows. “Are you going to feed our family?” they ask him. Others accuse him of trying to change their culture. In Indonesia, killing, trading or consuming a protected species can result in five years’ imprisonment and up to 100 million rupiah ($7,000) in fines, though enforcement is often lax.

Martialis Puspito travels nine hours each week from his home in central Sumatra to communities near Isau-Isau. There, he helps locals navigate relationships with wildlife and forests for South Sumatra’s conservation agency.

There’s little space left for animals, he says, which can lead to deadly encounters.

A case in point came at the end of 2019, when wild tigers killed three coffee farmers near the Isau-Isau reserve. Serows have been assumed to be a possible prey for tiger, but if shrinking habitats put pressure on both populations, humans and animals can come into contact more often.

“If the serow were to disappear, then surely the larger carnivores would too,” Martialis told Mongabay.

Forest officials with a confiscated serow head. Despite its protected status, the animal is hunted by poachers. Image courtesy of the South Sumatra Conservation Agency.

Recently, residents of one village reported another family for eating a serow and placing its skull above their door. It was a sign that the local conservation education was working, but Martialis says there are other things at stake. The family was let off with a warning, because they didn’t trade the animal and weren’t in a stable financial position.

Martialis once found a large stuffed serow on display in a hotel, and other serow skulls have made it to souvenir shops across the island.

“We don’t see snares that much anymore, so we think people are already beginning to think that the serow is not just an individual species, but a part of a [broader] ecosystem,” Martialis says. “Because they saw themselves in 2019 what happens in human-animal conflicts.”

Working with what they have

Neneng Susanti began researching the Sumatran serow when she was a master’s student a decade and a half ago. As far as she knows, there hasn’t been much research on the animal since then. As a forest management officer with the forestry office in the Kerinci area of Jambi, just north of Isau-Isau, she’s confirmed one of the main findings of her research: serows are secretive creatures that live in places humans hardly ever visit.

“Serows are extremely wild. They’re very sensitive to sounds, so they’re hard to see up close,” Neneng says. “I once caught a glance of one, but I more often find their tracks and see them in camera traps.”

A serow (Capricornis sumatraensis) at Dusit Zoo, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Melanochromis via Wikimedia Commons.

As habitats shrink, conservationists have attempted first to locate serows. Through a partnership with Pungky, the South Sumatra conservation agency has only recently begun to set up camera traps to learn more about the animals it’s tasked with protecting.

Faiznur, the Malaysian Ph.D. student, has a few dozen camera traps, but even over the course of 15 months, they only captured six sightings.

“More study is needed,” Faiznur says. “More camera traps are needed in [Mount] Ledang, so we can learn about their food habits, their social organization and everything about them.”

Sandro Lovari, an ecology professor at the University of Siena in Italy, may be the world’s leading expert on serows.

He chairs the IUCN’s Caprinae Specialist Group, which supports research on serows and other hoofed goat-antelopes like gorals, which are found in eastern Asia, and wild sheep. Lovari has found that the serow defends its food closely and typically makes a quick daylight appearance in the afternoon. But even after he had received some funding to find the serow in its native habitat, Lovari struggled to catch a glimpse of it.

“It turned out that watching serows is damn difficult under field conditions,” he wrote in an email. “A student who was with me managed to see a dark shape disappearing in the dense vegetation once and that was all. Only their eyes were visible, at night, during light-counts, but still in dense vegetation.”

Researchers say funding is the main problem. Field research could be made easier with radio tracking, which involves fitting study animals with radio collars to track their movements. Setting up a few hundred camera traps, rather than a few dozen, could also help, according to Faiznur. But as the only person she knows of who is focusing on Malaysia’s serows, it’s hard to find funding. Shepherd is keen to research serows, but most of the work he has done has been in his free time. According to Lovari, “nobody really cares” about the animal.

“It is not so iconic as the snow leopard, or the tiger, or the lion, or the elephant,” Lovari says. “It does not make a handsome ‘trophy.’ It is not dangerous to humans and it does not determine agricultural damage.” Funding agencies, researchers say, are more interested in supporting more iconic species, even as conservationists say protecting entire ecosystems can more effectively protect individual species.

Confiscated Sumatran serow heads.
Confiscated Sumatran serow heads. Image courtesy of the South Sumatra Conservation Agency.

Pungky knows his Sumatra Camera Trap Project was only made possible by the good fortune of finding generous donors. A few years ago, he struck up a conversation over Facebook with a conservationist in Europe, who ended up sending him a camera trap. With his help, Pungky set up a fundraiser, and in just three days received 13 more camera traps from just three people.

“We never thought we would ever have a camera trap,” Pungky recalls. “Every single person in the office was happy, just happy,” he says.

Pungky has managed to capture images of some of his target species, such as the clouded leopard, leaf monkey, and binturong, or bearcat. But the serow has yet to make an appearance. Still, he plans to keep trying with the resources he has. He knows that if he turns his attention elsewhere, there might not be anyone looking for the serow in Isau-Isau.

“If I didn’t find funding, I would choose another area with funding, and the serow might not be found,” he says.

Banner image of a Sumatran serow in a zoo via Wikimedia Commons.

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