for National Geographic News
A new population of a rare Asian deer thought to be on the brink of extinction in Laos has been discovered in unexplored tracts of the country's forests.
Until now, scientists thought there were perhaps as few as ten Eld's deer remaining in Laos. The new population, found in Savahnakhet province, may number more than 50 animals.
Eld's deer has already vanished from neighboring Thailand and Cambodia. Wildlife biologists estimate there may be no more than 3,000 individuals left, living primarily in Myanmar and India.
"Habitat still remains in Laos, but a rapid decline in the population was observed in the 1940s," said Arlyne Johnson, a conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) regional program in Vientiane, Laos. "By the 1980s villagers reported that the deer had disappeared from most of its range."
The new population may "provide genetic diversity that could keep this sub-species from slipping into extinction," she added.
Eld's deer (Cervus eldi) are known for their unusual bow- or lyre-shaped antlers, which sweep back in a single curve. The deer are typically found in Asia's dry, deciduous forests, which are characterized by high canopies, patches of open grassland, and seasonal flooding. These forests are home to other unusual and endangered species, including the Asiatic jackal and silvered langur, many of which have also disappeared from Laos.
The species' decline has been linked to agricultural sprawl and the bloody conflicts in the region. The deer were hunted to feed the Khmer rouge army during Cambodia's civil war.
Much of the wildlife in Laos continues to be threatened, said Johnson. "The forest is relatively flat, open, and easy to access, [which] allows overharvesting of wildlife for subsistence and trade which is the largest threat to wildlife conservation," she said.
Though strict prohibitions exist against hunting the deer in Laos, Johnson said the human and financial resources needed to enforce the laws are extremely limited.
Conservation workers were almost ready to resign themselves to the deer's extinction in Laos, said William J. McShea, a wildlife biologist at the Smithsonian National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia.
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