Hope was revived when Chanthavy Vonjkhamheng, a Laotian student and WCS conservationist, visited McShea in Virginia, and reported that Eld's deer had been sighted by isolated villagers in the nation's interior.
The scientists were initially skeptical, said Johnson. However, maps showed that the area was remote and had never been visited by a biological survey team. "We thought it may be possible that there are animals there, but were so surprised that they had not all been hunted out as everywhere else in Laos," Johnson said.
Satellite images of the area confirmed that the habitat was suitable. In May, a team of scientists from WCS and the Smithsonian Institute was dispatched to the field.
Strangely, while driving along country roads with the survey team, the habitat didn't look at all appropriate for hosting Eld's deer, said McShea. Then suddenly "we went around a mountain and came to an area exactly like [deer habitat in] Myanmar."
On the first visit, the team found a recently shed set of the deer's unusual antlers in a local village. On a second visit in July, the scientists saw two of the animals.
"It's like they were living in a black holecompletely off scientists' radar screens," said McShea. Survey work suggests that the new population may number around 50 individuals.
The discovery suggests that further small deer populations may exist. Satellite images indicate that suitable forest patches could support another 10 to 15 undocumented populations, said McShea. New populations could make all the difference to the genetic diversity of Eld's deerand diversity is essential for a species' survival, he said.
Local authorities, WCS, and Smithsonian wildlife conservationists are working to establish a national sanctuary. However, the survival of the deer will depend on the will of the villagers to refrain from hunting and from converting the habitat to rice paddies, said Johnson.
She hopes to work with international aid groups to provide water supplies as an incentive for villagers to stay out of designated conservation areas. "If we can demonstrate a successful model for protecting and bringing back a viable population, it would be a significant example for future conservation of other endangered species in Laos," she said.
The researchers are now considering the possibility that other species thought to be completely extinctsuch as Shomburgk's deer, which hasn't been seen since 1930may not have disappeared in isolated patches of suitable habitat. McShea said he's recently heard reports of fresh antler findings that don't fit the description of other species still known in Laos.
"This kind of discovery doesn't happen every day," said McShea. "For most endangered animals the situation just gets worse and worse."
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