Scientists identify last refuge for threatened Asian wildlife

Study highlights Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam as haven for mammal species

Saola copyright Toon Fey WWF

Giant muntjac deer once roamed across vast areas of Asia, before being hunted to the brink of extinction by people after the end of the Ice Age, a study* led by scientists from international conservation charity the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has revealed.

The study highlighted the remote Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam as the last haven for giant muntjacs, rather than a unique ‘lost world’ of specialised mammals that evolved due to unusual local conditions. Until now, it was believed that species like the Endangered giant muntjac and Critically Endangered saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) – an elusive, forest-dwelling bovine – had only ever existed in this region.  

Now, however, comparisons with giant muntjac antlers recovered in recent decades from archaeological sites across eastern and central China, some of them up to 7,000 years old, reveal no difference from contemporary examples, suggesting this species was once far more widespread. 

Conservation biologist Dr Samuel Turvey of ZSL said: “This study challenges previous understanding of the species in this region; rather than being restricted to the Annamite Mountains throughout its evolutionary history, the giant muntjac actually used to have a far wider distribution across eastern and south-east Asia. However, prehistoric human activity virtually wiped out the species, and it is now clinging onto survival in the remote upland landscapes of the Annamites.”

“While the Annamite Mountains have been regarded by conservationists as a lost world-style ‘cradle of evolution’ where new and highly-specialised species evolved in isolation, our study suggests that it may be more accurate to regard these mountains as a ‘last refuge’ for mammal species that were formerly widespread, but have now been lost from neighbouring countries such as China.”

Across Asia, biodiversity faces severe threats from human activity. The distributions of many mammal species have contracted massively as a result, making it harder for scientists to understand the true ecology of these animals. 

Following this study, scientists are calling for the giant muntjac to be reclassified as Muntiacus gigas. It is hoped that the knowledge gained through this research regarding the species’ changing distribution during the recent past will shed fresh light on the habitat requirements of these animals and bolster future conservation efforts. 

*Turvey, S. et al. (2016). ‘Holocene range collapse of giant muntjacs and pseudo-endemism in the Annamite large mammal fauna’. (Journal of Biogeography)


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