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.”

SWG Survey of Khoun Xe Nong Ma Reveals Surprisingly Intact Saola Habitat

It was bedtime in late September when SWG member Chanthasone Phommachanh (better known as Olay) turned from his notebook to see what was rustling near his jungle hammock. It had been a long day deep in the forests of Khoun Xe Nong Ma, a provincial-level protected area in Laos against the border of Vietnam where Phommachanh and an expedition team were collecting information about the area–species observed, signs of poaching, and data on the habitat.

This evening, the wildlife came to Phommachanh. He shined his flashlight at the noise and there, just 1.5 meters away, stood an Annamite Striped Rabbit. “I could see the stripes, the black and yellow stripes like a tiger, and I knew it was an Annamite Striped Rabbit for sure,” Phommachanh says with a certain excitement reserved for wildlife lovers. “It was amazing. I watched it for 20 seconds and then when he saw me, he took off in one jump, one very long jump.”

The Annamite Striped Rabbit is a rare Annamite endemic discovered shortly after the Saola. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Tilker)

This encounter gives Phommachanh the distinction of being among the only biologists to ever see an Annamite Striped Rabbit in the wild. But the moment also underscores the unexpected findings of an expedition that, over the course of about a month, revealed a relatively healthy community of biodiversity and a surprisingly intact core of habitat. And if an animal as elusive and rare as the Annamite Striped Rabbit can be found here, then maybe, just maybe, the Saola can, too.

Hope Unexpected

SWG member Rob Timmins is no stranger to the rapid and pervasive waves of poaching devastating populations of wildlife across the Annamite Mountains. He has been doing these kinds of expeditions in the area for more than 20 years, and as the years have gone by, he has learned to expect surveys to reveal fewer animals and more snares.

“There’s basically no forest in Indochina that has escaped at least some level of exploitation,” Timmins says. “There’s no area that you could find today that still has the most valuable species in any abundance. In general these days, I go into an area with considerably lowered expectations and in most of the areas I’ve surveyed in the last 10 years, those expectations have actually turned out to be even more optimistic than what we find in reality.”

Phommachanh and Timmins’ expedition to Khoun Xe Nong Ma, however, surprised them, defying their generally lowered expectations. Timmins says he’s been lucky to see primates once a week on past expeditions to other habitat in the Annamites, but reports seeing primates daily on this trip. Timmins also says the team came across signs of ungulates more frequently than on expeditions anywhere else in recent years. And in addition to the Annamite Striped Rabbit—an Annamites endemic discovered by none other than Rob Timmins shortly after the discovery of the Saola—Phommachanh reports seeing muntjacs, serows, Sambar Deer, gibbons and doucs, and hearing the rare Crested Argus call.

The survey team. (Photo by Chanthasone Phommachanh)

The team was also surprised to find very little evidence of hunting, especially snaring, in the forests. They determined that an area of core habitat about 200 square kilometers in size hasn’t yet experienced the kind of industrial-level snaring that is pushing Annamites endemics–rare, near-mythical species–to the brink of extinction, including the Saola. Timmins calls this discovery in today’s age of poaching unprecedented.

“I went in with an expectation that we would find snares pretty much throughout, and that maybe, if we were lucky, we’d find some sort of areas where the snaring had only been going on for a few years,” Timmins says. “Khoun Xe Nong Ma has experienced some of these waves of poaching, but it hasn’t experienced this kind of newest wave of industrial-level snaring. I was really surprised to find as large an area as we did without snares. It was really fantastic.”

A Future for Khoun Xe Nong Ma

While still in the field, Phommachanh and Timmins sent message by satellite out to the Lao government and its partner, Integrated Conservation of Biodiversity and Forests (ICBF),  and the Saola Working Group to alert them of the snares the team did find. ICBF had already sent a team to clear snares from a nearby area where Phommachanh had done a preliminary survey in July, and is in the process now of carrying out a snare-removal mission based on the most recent survey. In the next step, ICBF, which helped to fund the Khoun Xe Nong Ma expedition, will be adding patrolling stations and developing and organizing permanent patrol teams for the forest with the aim of preventing future threats. And the government plans to upgrade Khoun Xe Nong Ma from a provincial-level protected area to a national-level protected area sometime in the next year.

“It’s really encouraging that this project is ready to act, and it’s ready to act quickly,” Timmins says. “Unless there’s good protection for the area, just like everywhere else these species are going to disappear and it’s going to happen quickly. It is still possible at this point that we can actually do something.”

Phommachanh in the field. (Photo courtesy of Chanthasone Phommachanh)

In the meantime, Phommachanh and Timmins are eagerly awaiting the retrieval of photos from the more than 100 camera traps they set throughout the area. Phommachanh will be collecting data from the cameras’ SD cards in mid-November, and, as part of the urgent next phase of the survey, adding another 150 camera throughout the 200 square kilometers of relatively pristine habitat. They expect photos of Large-antlered Muntjacs, Owston’s Civets, Hog Badgers, Large Indian Civets, Crested Argus, macaques and maybe even the rare Edwards’s Pheasant.

“It would be very nice if there were Saola on there,” Timmins says, “but I won’t be disappointed if it isn’t. We need more of a focused effort to increase the odds of detecting them. But the SWG will keep this process going until we do detect Saola in the area.”

For Phommachanh, this expedition meant hope.

“Seeing animals in the wild in the thick forest of Laos is very difficult,” Phommachanh says. “Yet I saw so many species–muntjac, serow, Sambar, doucs and others. I even saw the Annamite Striped Rabbit. It gives me great hope that the Saola is here, too.”

Help support this crowdsourcing campaign to raise $41,000 for new cameras by Dec. 16 in the next vital step of this survey. Thanks to SWG supporter Kristine Karnos for making the campaign happen.

(Top photo: Khoun Xe Nong Ma habitat, photo by Chanthasone Phommachanh)

Chasing Saola Stories: Part I

In the Chasing Saola Stories series, SWG member Nicholas Wilkinson will be re-counting his adventures this summer in Vietnam to engage local people in finding surviving Saola. The series installments will be posted bi-weekly. Villagers’ names have been changed to protect their identity.

We arrive at Mr. Hoang Meng’s house on my birthday at dusk and sit around in the yard. Dùng, carsick from the winding drive, half-sleeps on a bench while Dũng and the others watch a woman bathe a tiny naked child. Another woman kills and butchers a bamboo rat on the concrete.

Later two of the hunting dogs come over later and lap up the blood. They are quite different from the stocky bear-faced dogs belonging to the Thai hunters we stayed with on our last trip. They have long limbs, long faces and deep eyes; the word ‘hound’ seems appropriate. One, of course, has a foot damaged by a snare.

Dùng is studying both environmental management and English language at Vinh University where studying two degrees at once is not expected. Her English is good and that’s refreshing because my Vietnamese is still poor, even after all this time. Her name is pronounced a bit like ‘Zum.’ Dũng, on the other hand, is Trung’s older brother, thin-faced and capable. His name is pronounced the same but as if you suddenly fall over in the middle of saying it.

Children playing in Mr Hoang Meng’s yard. (Photo by Nicholas Wilkinson)

Trung had warned the students that the H’mong houses wouldn’t be as ‘nice’ as those in the Thái villages. This is true, I suppose, the Thái now almost all have very fancy stilt houses, with varnished pillars and painted birds on the ceiling. But this house is spacious and solid enough, built by the army out of rough vertical planks. Around the doors there are serrated strips of pale wood, which make the doors look like sharks’ mouths. The big door that leads to the living room has two great curving ones like crickets’ horns. I ask Mr. Hoang Meng about them over dinner as he slips a black nugget of squirrel into my rice bowl. As I’d supposed, they’re to keep bad spirits from getting inside and I’m happy to be right about that. In fact, we have quite a nice chat about it with Trung and I talking about the mirrors and horseshoes that serve the same function in our respective cultures until Mr Sơn, from the border army, says: “It’s all just tradition. Every ethnic group has its own tradition. They all do different things and it has nothing to do with spirits or anything, it’s just culture and it’s all fine and all ethnic groups can have their own culture. It doesn’t mean anything.” So that ends that conversation.

We talk about Saola and we drink rice wine. Dũng and Thoại had told me, based on their previous visit to this village, that two people–Mr. Kim and Mr. B’long–had seen two Saola somewhere in the headwaters of a certain stream. Mr.  Hoang Meng says there were three Saola: a mother, father and baby. As usual I look for a theory either way. Maybe he’s pleased by our interest and the promise of reward and thinks we’ll be more interested the more Saola he claims there are. Or maybe the baby was real but was killed and so they didn’t want to mention it before. The first one seems more likely.

I find these alternative explanations help me not to get stuck on one story but they tend to sound too rational. It’s well known how memories mutate. Maybe the male and female Saola conceived a dream child in his mind alone. Maybe they were conceived there themselves, though to be honest I doubt it. We will meet the people who actually saw these Saola–however many there were–tomorrow. But tomorrow there is going to be a party.

The whole village will be there, Mr.  Hoang Meng says, it’s an annual thing. We’re lucky, Trung says, because we can interview them all at once. Dũng and Thoại found it difficult on their last trip because everyone only came back from the fields at lunch or in the evening. The H’mong are hardworking, he says. It will start at eight tomorrow, says Mr.  Hoang Meng. Although actually it doesn’t necessarily start at eight, it starts when the thầy cùng says it does. I don’t know that word.

Thoai sitting on the daybed at Mr HM’s house. (Photo by Nicholas Wilkinson)

“The one who can talk to the god,” says Trung, “What is it in English?”

“Shaman?” I guess.

“Shaman,” says Trung. I’m not sure if he knows that word or not. He makes the fluid, triple-waving prayer motion that Kinh people make when offering incense at an altar.

“Ah not like that,” says Mr  Hoang Meng. You’ll see tomorrow, you’ll see our shaman dancing.”

That sounds interesting. Also, I gather, it involves a goat. The goat is certain not to survive the experience, of this alone I am sure.

I insist the girls take the proper bed inside. The boys (and men) will take the day bed in the yard. Everyone in the mountains has beds made of massive slabs of wood, reportedly so they can sell it to timber traders and yet still tell forest rangers it’s only a bed and not illegal timber. Still, I think most people see it as nest egg because the wood is rubbed glassy-black by long use. There’s always a plastic mat of woven green and yellow plastic straws, which I suppose is slightly more yielding than bare timber. I put up my hammock between the fence and one of the planks of the house. The dogs sleep under it but they don’t sleep very well and consequently neither do I. Also I’ve tied the hammock poorly so it sags.

This is my excuse for what happens the next morning.

(Top photo: Road to the village. Photo by Nicholas Wilkinson)

Read Chasing Saola Stories: Part II

A Q&A with illustrator and SWG holiday card designer Eric Losh

For the last five years, Brooklyn-based artist Eric Losh has used his incredible talent as a volunteer to design SWG’s beautiful, Saola-themed holiday cards that go out to members, supporters and partners this time of year. Losh is also author and illustrator of “Wonders of the Annamites,” a children’s book that highlights the beauty of the species living in the Annamites Mountain range. Check out his work at www.elosh.com.

We had an opportunity to chat with Losh about his love for Annamites species, his 2017 holiday card, and the upcoming Vietnamese launch of his book “Wonders of the Annamites:”

2015 SWG holiday card

Q. How did you develop your interest in the species of the Annamites?
A: I saw a talk online in 2012 that was given by Bill Robichaud, coordinator of the Saola Working Group, about the work being done to protect the Saola. I was inspired by the talk, and felt compelled to contribute my talents toward the cause. After contacting Robichaud, he gave me the opportunity to create the artwork for that year’s SWG’s holiday card, which has now turned into an annual project. I’ve come to learn a lot about the ecology of the Annamites from Robichaud and his colleague, a wildlife expert for the IUCN, William Duckworth, throughout the years.

In 2015, Robichaud put me in touch with Camille Coudrat, founder of the Laos-based NGO, Project Anoulak. With her partnership, I went on to write and illustrate “Wonders of the Annamites,” which is the first children’s book about the wildlife found in the Annamites. The book features 60 animal species and the diverse mountain habitats in which they live, as seen by a local family as they travel through the highlands to visit their grandmother. I’m selling an English edition of the book in the United States, and Project Anoulak has released it in French and Lao. We’re also really excited for an upcoming Vietnamese release of the book by Vietnam’s Nha Nam Publishing this December.

Q. Where do you get the inspiration for each holiday card design for the Saola Working Group?
A: Each card is a new opportunity to delve into the world of the Saola, and I’m always excited to create artwork that offers a new view of the animal. There’s a very limited amount of footage and photos available of it, and even far less knowledge of its biology. So for the holiday cards, I rely on the reference available and my own imagination to bring the Saola to life. I’m a children’s book illustrator at heart, so I often take some artistic license with style and subject matter to show the Saola in whimsical scenes, interacting with other animals. In years past, I’ve illustrated the Saola with a menagerie of animals from Douc Langurs, gibbons, turtles, to Owston’s Civets, and recently the Large-antlered Muntjac.

This December, I’ll be taking a trip to Vietnam for the book launch of “Wonders of the Annamites” (in Vietnamese it’s called “Các Loài Quý Hiếm Vững Trường Sơn”) by Nha Nam Publishing. As my wife and I are avid bird watchers, we’ll be doing some birding in the national parks after the event, so I decided that for this year’s card I wanted to depict the Saola along with a flock of birds from its home range. Robichaud was intrigued by the concept, and decided that we should tie the card with a new conservation organization called the Silent Forest Program. This is a new campaign by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (a very faithful and important supporter of the SWG) that is focused on the Southeast Asian songbird crisis. There has been a population crash in songbirds throughout Indochina and the Greater Sunda region, as wild birds are being illegally collected for the pet and singing contest trade. Many forests are becoming eerily silent and devoid of the rich diversity they once held. The Silent Forest Program works to raise awareness of this issue, fundraise for conservation efforts, and provide support for captive breeding programs.

2017 SWG holiday card

My illustration this year depicts eight bird species that are significant to the Annamites and/or are known to be vocal species, perched on the Saola for protection. The birds appear quiet and stoic, save for a Red-tailed Laughingthrush that is whispering into the Saola’s ear. I like to think that perhaps the bird is asking the Saola for help avoiding detection by humans, as the Saola itself is such a notoriously cryptic species.

Q. Why are you so committed to helping the Saola Working Group?
A: I’m fascinated by the Saola’s story. It was mostly unheard of outside Laos and Vietnam for centuries. It is now so rare that its existence has been almost elevated to a mythical or legendary status. Without the SWG’s efforts to slow poaching and habitat loss, the Saola will certainly become extinct within my lifetime (this phrase has unfortunately become a bit cliché when discussing endangered species, but unlike other imperiled species such as elephants or tigers, the Saola has never been seen in the wild by a biologist, has only been documented a handful of times via camera traps, and none exist in captivity).

2014 SWG holiday card

Working with the SWG, I’ve been inspired by this group of people who have dedicated their careers to protecting this species and its habitat. There are people who have spent countless hours devoted to studying and protecting something that they will possibly never even glimpse. I’m committed to show that through my art.

Q. What do you hope SWG members and supporters take away from the holiday card?
A: One important—and certainly intentional—outcome of the conservation work of the SWG is that its conservation efforts has an umbrella effect on many other incredible species of the Annamite Mountains. When poaching or habitat destruction of the Saola is reduced, countless other animals benefit. This card in particular shows that many bird species that were once considered common are now becoming as vulnerable as the Saola. Wildlife in the Annamites is at risk from a myriad of threats, so any interest and financial support generated through this holiday card can make a big difference in supporting the conservation work of the SWG.

2016 SWG holiday card

Q. What is happening at the Vietnamese launch of “Wonders of the Annamites?” What else will you be doing while in Vietnam?
A. The book launch will be hosted by Nha Nam Publishing on December 3rd in Hanoi’s Book Street in the Hoàn Kiếm District. Camille Coudrat from Project Anoulak and I will be presenting the book, doing a Q&A with press, and even doing a drawing and painting lesson with kids from a local art club. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and we invite any SWG supporters and families around Hanoi to come to the event!

2013 SWG holiday card

Afterward, my wife and I are headed southward to enjoy a few of the national parks in Central Vietnam that are within the Annamite Mountain Range and foothills. We’ll be birding and primate watching around Cuc Phuong National Park and visiting the Endangered Primate Rescue Center and Save Vietnam’s Wildlife to learn more about the rehabilitated gibbons, langurs, pangolins and civets. Then we’ll head to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site) to do a mountain day-trek with a local eco conservation tour company. Finally, after a drive to Hue, we’ll be taking a day trip to Bach Ma National Park for birding, then visiting the Son Tra Peninsula Reserve outside of Danang to observe the endangered Red-shanked Douc Langurs with a local NGO called GreenViet. It’ll be a dream come true to finally see firsthand some of the habitats (and hopefully species) that I’ve been researching and illustrating for the past many years. While we don’t expect to glimpse a Saola, we still hope to see some of the other mammals and birds that I’ve featured in “Wonders of the Annamites” and in these holiday cards for the Saola Working Group.

(All artwork by Eric Losh)

Annamite striped rabbit

The Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi) is one of the most interesting animals to have recently been discovered by science in this region. Goldish-tan, with dark tiger-like stripes streaked across its body, this is, in my opinion, the most stunning lagomorph in the world. Add to this the fact that nothing is known about the basic ecology of this species and you have an enigmatic animal that captivates the imagination. Prior to its discovery the only striped rabbit know to science was found on the island of Sumatra. There in the deep jungles lives the aptly named Sumatran striped rabbit (Nesolagus netscheri). Although officially described in 1880, this rare nocturnal rabbit is seldom seen, and not much is known about it. For the next hundred plus years it was believed to be the only striped rabbit in the world. Then in the late 1990s the Annamites yielded another biological surprise: a second striped rabbit species. A biologist working in the region first came across the Annamite striped rabbit when he saw captured animals being offered for sale in a food market in a rural town in Laos. Not long after this it was confirmed to exist in Vietnam.

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A day filled with doucs

When I looked through the binoculars I met a pair of almost-human eyes glaring back at me. It was an odd sensation. The eyes were haunting: dark, penetrating, they burned with an intensity that sent a shiver through my body. But it was a shiver of pure pleasure because I was face-to-face with one of the most spectacular primates on the planet: the red-shanked douc langur. As I gazed at the langur, I wondered, yet again, how evolution could have concocted such a fantastic-looking species. Long, white whiskers framed an orange-tinted face, ivory-clad forearms ended in jet-black hands, and velvety legs that blazed a fierce vermillion. It is a creature too incredible, too beautiful, to be real. And yet there it was. For several minutes I admired the doucs as they browsed. Then, with a rustling of branches and leaves, the group moved off, loping long-armed through the canopy. The forest was still again. Huy, an expert on red-shanked doucs and our guide for the day, smiled and suggested that we move on. He said there was another group that lived nearby, and that with any luck, we’d get a good view of the dominant male. I nodded and lowered my binoculars. The truck growled to life and we set off…

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