Looking for Hope for Vietnam’s Ungulates…in Idaho

By Kristin Arakawa

When Minh Nguyen, a student at Science University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, first saw a Southern Red Muntjac in the wild in Lang Biang Biosphere Reserve, she was in awe.

“It was so beautiful,” Nguyen says. “The muntjac was just there eating grass in front of me. It was so amazing to see the animal in the wild, rather than in captivity. Today, that is the memory that drives my work to protect the Large-Antlered Muntjac, which is much less common than the Red Muntjac that I saw in the park that day.”

For most people, dedicating time and effort to protecting a species they’ve never seen in the wild would be a difficult and maybe even dispiriting task, especially if they hadn’t seen it because the species was approaching extinction. But the Large-antlered Muntjac is one of two Critically Endangered species (the other is the Saola) Nguyen has never seen, but is passionately helping to save.

Mule deer (Photo by U.S. Forest Service via Flickr: http://bit.ly/2GaPp2i)

That passion is, in part, how Nguyen found herself on the other side of the world in January, pinning down a Mule Deer in Idaho while a researcher placed a telemetry collar on the animal. Her visit wasn’t just a challenge to see if Nguyen has the physical strength to hold down an 80-pound animal, but instead to learn about a capture method that researchers in Vietnam and Laos might be able to use to catch Large-antlered Muntjac for a conservation breeding program to save the species.

Protecting Vietnam’s Ungulate Species

Large-Antlered Muntjac and Saola are among the rarest and most threatened large mammal species globally. Endemic to the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam, the IUCN Red List currently categorizes both Large-Antlered Muntjac and Saola as Critically Endangered. Both species are victims of the widespread and illegal use of hunting snares. Use of snares in Southeast Asian tropical forests is clearing these landscapes of their terrestrial wildlife species, leading to a phenomenon known as “empty forest syndrome.”

“Less than 25 years after its remarkable discovery, the Large-antlered Muntjac—like the Saola—is on the verge of extinction,” said Andrew Tilker, leader of the SWG’s Large-antlered Muntjac Task Team. “We can’t let this remarkable species follow in the footsteps of the Kouprey or Schomburgk’s deer—two other Southeast Asian ungulates that have slipped into extinction. We must secure a captive breeding population for the species. And with such a great group of team members dedicated to this project, I know we will succeed.”

For both species, the best hope for survival is a conservation breeding program, which requires bringing the animals from the wild into the center, caring for them to high international standards, and breeding them successfully. The SWG in partnership with the governments of Vietnam and Laos, aim to first attempt this with Large-antlered Muntjac, then Saola.

A rare camera-trap image of a Large-antlered Muntjac in Lang Biang Biosphere Reserve in south-central Vietnam. (Photo credit: The Southern Institute of Ecology, Saola Working Group, Global Wildlife Conservation and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research)

“There are currently no monitored wild populations or captive populations of Large-antlered Muntjac or Saola,” Nguyen says. “We don’t want these species to go the way of the Javan Rhino in Vietnam, with no chance to recover their populations. But if we do save these species, it will be such an inspiring national story of wildlife conservation in Vietnam and will inspire the public to learn more about conservation issues.”

Before the conservation breeding program can start, SWG researchers need to find a safe and effective method of capturing Large-Antlered Muntjacs in the wild

For some hands-on experience and a firsthand look, in January Nguyen flrew from Vietnam to Idaho to work with Mark Hurley, the wildlife research supervisor of the Idaho Fish and Game Department, where she learned to capture and collect information on wild Mule Deer. Nguyen’s professor, Mark Hebblewhite at the University of Montana, first suggested that she make the trek and helped arranged the trip.

The Art of Drive Netting

One of the methods that Hurley and the Idaho Fish and Game Department use to capture and collect biological information on Mule Deer in the wild is a combination of drive netting and GPS collar tracking. This capture method uses helicopters to drive individuals of the target species short distances into nets set up at the bottom of draws or in tall vegetation, while researchers hide nearby.

Once the Mule Deer (usually a yearling or adult doe) becomes entangled in the net, the research team gently but firmly holds it down to prevent injury to both the animal and researchers. Then a team member attaches a GPS collar, which helps researchers determine where Mule Deer migrate, how they use their habitat and their mortality rate. This isn’t such an easy task for everyone, says Nguyen, who weighs in at only 114 pounds, but had to help restrain animals that weighed between 70 and 100 pounds. The team releases the deer back into the wild after collecting information to determine the animal’s age, body weight and length of the hind leg.

The mule deer capture team. (Photo courtesy of Minh Nguyen)

“Helicopter drive netting is the safest way to capture deer, even though it can occasionally be hard on the capture staff,” writes Jim Lukens, the regional supervisor for the Salmon Region in Idaho, in a press release. “Mortality of deer captured in drive nets is the lowest of any other capture method used for mammals…this is an efficient and essential tool for the management of our herds.”

Using drive nets, Nguyen, Hurley and their large team handled up to 20 animals a day. However, while drive net techniques have proven successful at capturing Mule Deer, Nguyen says she’s not sure yet that it’s the best fit for capturing Large-antlered Muntjac in the denser forests of Laos and Vietnam.

Although SWG may not ultimately use Idaho’s drive net technique in its Annamite ungulate conservation programs, Nguyen says she believes her experience with Mule Deer in Idaho provides a strong foundation for her research on Large-Antlered Muntjac.

“I am so grateful to the SWG, Professor Hebblewhite and Mark Hurley for providing this opportunity,” Nguyen says. “This experience gave me some insight into setting up a drive net, which factors make this successful, how to handle animals once they become trapped in the nets, how many people are needed on the research team, and how to safely handle captured animals. Even if we can’t use this exact method on Large-antlered Muntjac, it was great for me to get some experience in handling these animals safely and seeing what works in this habitat.”

Nguyen says that ultimately SWG may need to use a variety of capture methods to catch Large-antlered Muntjac and the team will need to practice to perfect its methodology. In the end, her trip to Idaho has helped put her one step closer to protecting the ungulates she loves.

“Sometimes it’s hard to stay hopeful, but as long as I keep doing everything I can to ensure the animals are protected, hope will come for both of us,” Nguyen says. “Just like I have to have hope that even though I haven’t gotten to see a Large-Antlered Muntjac in the wild yet, someday I will.”

Unexpected Gift to Newlyweds Helps Save the Saola

The phrase “for better or for worse” has taken on a new meaning for Zoo Boise’s former director, Steve Burns, who was shocked to open a card with a $35,000 check to Saola conservation among his wedding gifts in August. Burns has been a passionate champion of Saola conservation since he heard SWG Coordinator Bill Robichaud give a talk at the Wildlife Conservation Network’s Wildlife Expo in San Francisco in 2011. The donation will support the construction of the conservation breeding center for Saola, a risky endeavor that nonetheless represents the best hope for the species.

“My wife and I had asked people not to give us gifts, but some gave us cards and movie tickets, things like that,” Burns says. “We opened up one of the envelopes and there was the check for $35,00, with a wonderful note about Saola conservation. We were so surprised—it is such a nice, unusual, creative wedding gift.”

The $35,000 also represented a commitment that Burns had made to Zoo Boise. After an Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation inspection in June, Zoo Boise had decided on a $350,000 construction project to address some of the issues pointed out during the inspection. Whenever Zoo Boise launches new construction projects, it pledges to raise and donate 10 percent of the construction costs to conservation. When Burns went before the Friends of the Zoo, he promised to develop a plan to raise the $35,000 for conservation, but didn’t anticipate that that plan would involve his wedding.

Zoo Boise has a creative history of supporting Saola conservation through its ZooTeens program. The zoo trained its 160 ZooTeens about the Saola, other Critically Endangered species in the Annamites and the threats to those species, including the rampant snaring crisis that is at the root of the “empty forest syndrome.” ZooTeens talk to visitors about the Saola and then ask if they’d like to donate a quarter—the amount rewarded for each snare a ranger pulls out of the forest. In this way, ZooTeens have raised $1,500 to $2,500 each summer.

“Zoos have a moral and ethical obligation to do something about the fact that we’re facing the world’s sixth mass extinction crisis,” Burns says. “And zoos are in a unique position—we have collections of animals that millions of people want to come see and we have an opportunity to generate support for conservation in a way that no one else can.”

Zoo Boise ZooTeens (photo from Zoo Boise website: http://bit.ly/2FOFXm2)

Under Burns’ leadership, Zoo Boise has become a force for conservation. The zoo was the first to charge a conservation fee—$.25 at first, then $.35 and now $.50—for each admission to the park. All revenue from some of the zoo’s most popular attractions also benefit conservation, ultimately resulting in a contribution of 10 percent of the zoo’s budget annually. Before Burns left Zoo Boise in December to take up the helm as president/CEO of Utah’s Hogle Zoo, he also set into motion the first-ever Annamites exhibit—another opportunity to promote the plight of the Saola.

“Part of what makes zoos’ support of Saola conservation so great is that no zoo has a Saola—we’re doing this not to benefit a popular zoo species, but instead to save a little-known species,” Burns says. “The Saola has a lot of star power, and zoos can help share that story. Once you learn about what has gone on in that part of the world, where we’re basically just vacuuming out the forests of all of their animals, you want to know what you can do to help.”

Pile of snares (Photo by Bill Robichaud)

Burns will now continue to raise support for conservation in his new post at Hogle Zoo. His wife, an accountant, has also become a Saola champion, and the two hope to travel someday to the Annamites. Their $35,000 wedding gift is one of a number of donations from zoos worldwide that are participating in a fundraising campaign for the new conservation breeding center.

“When I told SWG’s Bill Robichaud about the gift, he was so thrilled,” Burns said. “He asked me if I could get married again any time soon.”