New Population of Rare Asian Deer Found in Laos

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
September 20, 2002
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.

Desperate Situation

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.

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 hole—completely off scientists' radar screens," said McShea. Survey work suggests that the new population may number around 50 individuals.

Ensuring Survival

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 deer—and 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 extinct—such as Shomburgk's deer, which hasn't been seen since 1930—may 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."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.