Southern Vietnam is making some wildlife history this week, as a tiny deer-like animal no bigger than a rabbit has been photographed and seen for the first time in almost three decades! The silver-backed chevrotain, more simply known as the Vietnamese mouse deer, was thought to be extinct by conservationists because the last recorded sighting of one was twenty five years ago. The last recording was made by Russian wildlife researchers who obtained a dead mouse deer from a local hunter who also believed the species was extinct. Ever since then the animals have remained completely off the radar.
“For so long, this species has seemingly only existed as part of our imagination. Discovering that it is, indeed, still out there, is the first step in ensuring we don’t lose it again, and we’re moving quickly now to figure out how best to protect it,” said Vietnamese biologist An Nguyen, an associate conservation scientist with Global Wildlife Conservation.
The Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) made the assumption thirty years ago that the chevrotain was yet another species that has fallen victim to intense deforestation/habitat loss as a result of climate change, or illegal poaching and trafficking. This was especially due to the fact that wire snares have become such an intense problem in the southern Vietnam region. Wire snares are homemade traps that hunters use to trap wildlife for trafficking purposes, more than anything, according to CNN. In fact, within the past five years patrol teams have seized over 200,000 of these illegal traps that were discovered in Vietnam alone.
The discovery was made near the beach city of Nha Trang after a team of researchers and scientists working for the Journal of Nature Ecology and Evolution interviewed a slew of local villagers and forest rangers who reported potential sightings of the then thought to be extinct creature. After the documented villager accounts for the sightings, scientists set up hidden camera traps in the various areas where the reports came from and waited. The traps were set up for five months and in that time the team was able to record over 275 pictures of the silver-backed chevrotain.
The result was way more than any of them expected, so they set up twenty nine more cameras around the same area based on where the previous photos were captured. After that, they were able to capture almost 2,000 pictures of the chevrotain, all occurring over the course of five short months. That’s a staggering amount of recorded data for an animal that was previously thought to be extinct. While the re-discovery of a “mouse-deer” like animal may not seem like a huge deal to some, to conservationists, it’s like discovering that the dodo bird still exists.
The animals are quite adorable, weighing in at a maximum of ten pounds, they’re the world’s smallest hoofed mammals, and despite the nickname, they aren’t actually related to mice or deer. They are also no stranger to staying out of the spotlight. In the report covering the rediscovery, the team of researchers mention how the species was first discovered by scientists in 1910. After that initial discovery there were no more recorded verified records of chevrotain until 1990! Even then it was just one single animal which was seized from a hunter in Vietnam who captured it illegally.
“Before this we only had these two historical sightings separated by quite some distance—one in the southern part of Vietnam and the other much further north. But we knew that many people have camera-trapped in the wet evergreen forests and hadn’t seen it, so we thought we should look at the dry forest habitat that’s really different and where not many people have looked. To the scientific world this was a lost species, but local people had known about it. It was only by utilizing the local ecological knowledge that we were successful. That can be replicated for other species in other parts of the world,” said Andrew Tilker, Asian Species Officer at the GWC.
Tilker along with the other researchers who participated in this amazing rediscovery made it a clear point that just because history shows that these animals survive under the radar, that doesn’t mean that there still isn’t a massive threat to the remainder silver-backed chevrotains. Local citizens most likely never reported sightings as a means to protect them from illegal wildlife poachers/traffickers.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.