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The forgotten creatures of the Mekong

 
    Also known as Leaf deerLeaf muntjac: the world’s second smallest deer species, so small single large tree leaf can wrap its body. Hence the name.
    It was first seen by a team of scientists undertaking field surveys in the Himalayan region of northern Myanmar.Sightings of the animal are so rare that scientists have been unable to asses it’s full distribution and status.
    © Panthera / Alan Rabinowitz / WWF-Nepal
    Water BuffaloWild water buffalo: this once-abundant and well-recognisable Asian icon is now on the brink. Fewer than 4,000 exist in the wild today – that’s almost as low as tigers.
    The availability of water is key to their survival, including the water that comes directly from the Mekong River. Their prime habitat is grasslands, swamps and marshlands, thick with vegetation.
    © Anton Vorauer / WWF-Canon
    SambarSambar: these are the favourite prey of tigers and Asiatic lions (and the occasional crocodile!) perhaps because they are huge, only next in size to the moose and elk!
    They make up nearly 60% of the prey selected by the tiger. Interestingly, the tiger is said to even mimic the call of the sambar to receive it while hunting! But sadly the sambar population in the Greater Mekong is declining due to hunting for wild bush meat and horns.
    © Cambodia WWF/FA
    SaolaSaola: this species has taken on a mythical status. so elusive in fact that it has been named the “Asian unicorn”.
    It only occurs in the Annamite mountains of Vietnam and Laos but has never been seen in the wild by scientists. The discovery of the Saola in the early 1990s was hailed as one of the most significant new mammal discovery in the last 70 years but it is threatened by illegal hunting
    © David Hulse / WWF-Canon

    Ungulates –  mammals with hooves – are a pretty varied bunch of creatures, encompassing everything from domestic cattle like pigs and goats, to wild and increasingly rare species like the Javan rhino and Mountain tapir.

    But the ungulates I’m talking about today are quite special, varying from dog-sized deer to antlered creatures so seldom seen that they have taken on a mythical status…

    These creatures don’t have the same global spotlight as species like the tiger (also found in the Mekong), but they are incredibly few and far between. Unless we make some noise about the existence of Mekong’s ungulates, they could disappear from this world forever without people even knowing they were here in the first place- quietly sharing our planet.

    They are also incredibly important in ecological terms. Many of these ungulates are only found within this particular region of Southeast Asia. They are used as an indicator of the health and ecological integrity of the entire Mekong region, as they face similar threats  to other – harder to survey – species. Their loss would deal a serious blow to the remaining population of endangered tigers that rely on the ungulates as their main food source.

    Sadly, these ungulates are threatened from every angle. They get trapped in snares that weren’t intended for them. Others – like sambar, munjac and civets – are targeted specifically for their body parts for the lucrative wildlife trade driven by traditional medicine in China and restaurant and food markets in Vietnam and Laos. If this weren’t enough – the ungulates are losing their habitat at an extraordinary rate: the Greater Mekong countries have lost 42.2 million hectares of forest (that’s 30% forest cover!) between 1973-2009 – the latest report has revealed.

    The issues are all connected: habitat destruction has paved the way for Asia’s rural poor and illegal wildlife traders to penetrate further into forests to poach key ungulate species. The loss of these creatures means more competition for food for tigers who are preying on livestock instead, causing additional problems for people who rely on their cattle for food and income.

    The problems are varied and complex but as we reveal how much there is to still learn about our natural world and the treasures within in it, the more we can ensure that species like the Mekong ungulates are not forgotten.

    Read WWF’s Rumble in the Jungle report here.

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