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Cambodia’s first giant muntjac sighting highlights key mountain habitat

Giant muntjac

The large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) captured on camera trap during surveys in Virachey National Park, Cambodia in early 2021.

  • Camera trap surveys in Virachey National Park in northeast Cambodia have recorded the country’s first sightings of a critically endangered deer, the large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis).
  • The surveys also recorded a suite of other increasingly rare species, including critically endangered Sunda pangolins and red-shanked douc langurs and endangered Asian elephants and dholes.
  • Located in the Annamite mountain range, Virachey National Park is remote and rugged, which affords wildlife some protection from human encroachment.
  • Poaching and logging have been hugely problematic in Virachey National Park in the past; experts say stronger protection is needed to safeguard its unique and diverse wildlife.

Camera trap surveys in Virachey National Park in northeast Cambodia have recorded the country’s first sightings of a critically endangered deer, the large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis). The species, also known as the giant muntjac, was first described nearly three decades ago, and up until now had only been recorded in Laos and Vietnam. The surveys also recorded a suite of other increasingly rare species, highlighting the importance of the national park, which experts say is in need of additional protection to safeguard its unique and diverse wildlife.

Virachey National Park is located in the Annamite mountain range, which weave a chain of precipitous peaks and forested valleys along the border between Laos and Vietnam, terminating at the south in a flourish of high ground that sweeps into northeast Cambodia. The national park was established in 1993 and spans more than 3,300 square kilometers (1,270 square miles) of this remote and rugged terrain, locally named “the dragon’s tail.”

The Annamite mountains are a global biodiversity hotspot: over the last three decades, scientists have identified many unique species, including the Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), the saola ox (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) and the large-antlered muntjac, that occur nowhere else on the planet. Recent camera trap surveys in Phong Dien Nature Reserve, Vietnam, roughly 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Virachey, also recorded a host of rare and threatened species, including as-yet-unidentified muntjac deer, underscoring the importance of the high-elevation Annamite forests as important refuges for rare and common species alike.

The survey team trekked into Virachey National Park for 14 days to place 100 camera traps in 50 locations, covering an area of 160 km2 (60 mi2). Image courtesy of Pin Chanratana/MoE/WildCRU

Although camera traps have been used in Virachey National Park before, the recent surveys, led by Pin Chanratana, an environmental officer at Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment, with support from Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, were the first large-scale systematic camera-trapping initiative in the national park.

“The survey was initially targeting large cats, specifically clouded leopard,” Chanratana told Mongabay. “But camera traps will not just capture one single species, they photograph anything that comes along as well; we were lucky and we got the large-antlered muntjac, which is critically endangered.”

In an effort to establish the population density of clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) in the park, Chanratana and his team of local field assistants trekked into the dense forest for 14 days to deploy some 100 camera traps at 50 locations, covering an area of 160 km2 (60 mi2). Two cameras were set up at each location, so that animals could be viewed from multiple angles to facilitate identification of individuals. The team left the cameras in place for three months, from March to May 2021.

The camera trap surveys were targeting large cats, specifically to establish population density of clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa). Image courtesy of Pin Chanratana/MoE/WildCRU

According to Chanratana, the recent surveys recorded several of the 12 known muntjac deer species, but documenting the large-antlered muntjac for the first time in Cambodia was the crowning glory. “Common muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) was recorded at 33 of the 50 locations, and we had over 160 encounters with it. The large-antlered muntjac appeared at only one location, with one encounter. It is very rare.”

Fortunately, that single encounter secured enough evidence to unequivocally identify the deer. When Chanratana reached out to experts for corroboration, he initially sent two photographs of the deer, one from the side and one from the front. They told him that “It’s 95% certain it’s a large-antlered muntjac, but if we can have a picture of the tail then we can confirm it to 100%.” Happily, Chanratana could send them that crucial picture of the view from the rear. “It was just so lucky to me that the camera trap took every angle of the animal that was needed to confirm its identity — from the front, the back and the side — perfect!”

The large-antlered muntjac was first described from Laos and Vietnam in 1994. It is now scarcely seen in the wild. Many records of its continued existence are based on antlers found in villages in Laos, Vietnam and eastern Cambodia. Based on such scant available records, the IUCN calculates that the population is in rapid decline and recommends the establishment of a captive-breeding program to safeguard it against extinction.

Besides 13 threatened species, the camera traps recorded many others, including birds. This is a Siamese fireback (Lophura diardi). Image courtesy of Pin Chanratana/MoE/WildCRU

The camera traps recorded a diverse range of other species in addition to the rare deer. In total, 13 species were recorded that are threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List, including critically endangered Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica) and red-shanked douc langurs (Pygathrix nemaeus) and endangered Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and dholes (Cuon alpinus). They also captured such felids such as clouded leopards, Asiatic golden cats (Catopuma temminckii) and leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis); two species of bears; and ungulates such as serows (Capricornis sumatraensis), gaurs  (Bos gaurus) and sambar deer (Rusa unicolor).

“The data shows the signs of wildlife recovery,” Chanratana said. “We saw dhole with pups, black bear with cubs and baby elephants. This is a sign that they are healthy there; they are doing well and hunting pressure is not as high as in neighboring forests.”

Poaching and logging have been hugely problematic in Virachey National Park in the past. Over the last decade, investigations led by U.K.-based NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency have uncovered illegal logging in protected areas within the park. The high-value timber is often smuggled into Vietnam where it enters international markets, according to EIA reports. A further major threat to wildlife in the park is snaring, which has reached a crisis point in the region.

“The large-antlered muntjac is emblematic of the decline of large mammals in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indochina, that has been driven by snaring, which is traps that are set on the ground to capture deer and pigs for wildlife meat restaurants,” Thomas Gray, tiger landscape and recovery lead at WWF, told Mongabay. “That is what has driven it toward its globally endangered status.” The species historically ranged over a much wider area, but hunting and snaring have confined it to remote pockets of wet evergreen mountain forest in the Annamites, Gray said.

Pin Chanratana (left) and field assistants set up a camera trap in Virachey National Park. Image courtesy of Pin Chanratana/MoE/WildCRU

The survey findings reveal a stark contrast to many of the “defaunated” forests in the region, Gray said: “It shows that essentially — with the absence of tiger, rhino and leopard — all of the other animals you’d expect to find in Asian rainforests are still present in Virachey.”

But this rich remaining fauna is not necessarily definitive proof of successful protected area management or coherent conservation, according to Gray. Rather, it is a by-product of the park’s remoteness. “It essentially reflects that this is the last frontier where hunting hasn’t yet reached.”

As Cambodia’s protected areas strain under development pressure, illegal logging and poaching, several protected areas have been degazetted in recent years. The Cambodian government currently receives very little support from outside funders to manage the park and improve law enforcement. Experts say stronger protection is needed to ensure Virachey doesn’t suffer a similar fate.

“Hopefully it’s a wake-up call to protect this last frontier,” Gray said. “It is very encouraging that the animals are still there, but one suspects that as development progresses and as the deforestation front moves, as there’s more accessibility, those animals will disappear unless more funds come in to protect it.”

For Chanratana, the camera trap survey was a “great adventure” and he said he hopes the team’s discoveries will spotlight the importance of Virachey’s unique ecosystem. “I suggest people pay more attention to Virachey and help the wildlife there.”

An Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) recorded on one of the camera traps. Image courtesy of Pin Chanratana/MoE/WildCRU
An adult and juvenile Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), were among the threatened species recorded by the camera traps in Virachey National Park. Image courtesy of Pin Chanratana/MoE/WildCRU

Banner image: The large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) captured on camera trap during surveys in Virachey National Park, Cambodia in early 2021. Image courtest of Pin Chanratana/MoE/WildCRU

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