A small deer-like creature that conservationists feared was extinct has been photographed, in Vietnam, for the first time in almost three decades.
Scientists had last spotted the silver-backed chevrotain, also called the Vietnamese mouse-deer, in 1990 in central Vietnam, Global Wildlife Conservation said in a statement. The rabbit-size chevrotain lives in a tropical forest-covered part of the Asian nation, is often targeted by poachers and is the first mammal on the Texas-based organization's list of 25 most-wanted lost species to be found.
"For so long this species has seemingly only existed as part of our imagination," An Nguyen, an associate conservation scientist for Global Wildlife Conservation, said in the statement. "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."
Scientists talked with residents and government forest rangers in the southern Vietnamese coastal city of Nha Trang who said they had seen a gray chevrotain, which is a more common type of chevrotain than the silver-sheened one. The locals and rangers told the scientists that the chevrotain population had been declining because of hunting.
The scientists then set up three camera traps, which in five months captured 275 photos of the silver-backed chevrotain. Another 29 cameras put in place for an additional five months recorded 1,881 more pictures.
"To the scientific world this was a lost species, but local people had known about it," Andrew Tilker, Asian species officer at Global Wildlife Conservation, told CNN. "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."
The conservationists published their findings on Monday in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. They declined to identify the specific location where the chevrotain had been photographed, citing the prevalence of commercial hunting and the high demand for wildlife products in Southeast Asia.
There are 10 known species of chevrotains, most of which live in Asia. At less than 10 pounds each, chevrotains are the world's smallest ungulates, or hoofed mammals. They are solitary animals who walk on the tips of their hoofs and have two fangs.
Four silver-backed chevrotains were collected in southern Vietnam in 1910, leading to the first descriptions of the creatures. Scientists do not appear to have conducted follow-up searches for the rare animals after a hunter-killed silver-backed chevrotain was found in 1990, according to the new study.
"Given the considerable increase in hunting pressure that has occurred in Vietnam since the early 1990s, it was unclear whether the species still existed," the researchers wrote in the study. "Once again, the silver-backed chevrotain became a lost species."
Scientists know little about the silver-backed chevrotain's ecology or conservation status, according to Global Wildlife Conservation. The organization said the rediscovery of the rarely seen creature encourages them to further research it and to push for its conservation.
Conservationists said they plan to put camera traps in two additional areas to figure out the size and stability of this population of chevrotains, as well as threats to their survival. High levels of hunting with homemade wire snares have created an "empty forest syndrome" in Vietnam and placed several species on the brink of extinction, according to the study.
This article was written by Marisa Iati, a reporter for The Washington Post.