World's Smallest Ungulate, Lost for 30 Years, Found Tiptoeing in Vietnam Forest

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©. Trail camera capturing the rediscovered Silver-backed Chevrotain (Photo: Southern Institute of Ecology/Global Wildlife Conservation/Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research/NCNP)

One of the '25 most wanted' lost species, the silver-backed chevrotain is a snaggle-toothed, deer-like species that is the size of a rabbit and walks on its tippy toes.

In a collaborative effort with more than 100 scientists, Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) has a list of 1,200 species of animals and plants that are missing to science – organisms that were once discovered, but haven't been seen in a while. And among that menagerie, they made a short-list of the top 25 “most wanted” species in the world.

Earlier this year we wrote about one of the members of the list, the world's largest bee, which was found in Indonesia! Hurray for Wallace's giant bee!

And now we have more good news; the first mammal from the list has been rediscovered – a small, deer-like species called a silver-backed chevrotain that hasn't been seen since 1990. GWC notes that the rabbit-sized creature, has a set of fangs and a silver sheen, and has been "hanging on in a region of Vietnam ravaged by poaching by snares." There are 10 known species of chevrotain in the world – they are actually the world’s smallest ungulates (hoofed mammals), weighing less than 10 pounds.

“For those of us living in Vietnam and working in wildlife conservation, the question of whether the chevrotain was still out there and if so, where, has been nagging us for years,” said An Nguyen, associate conservation scientist for GWC and expedition team leader. Nguyen is also field coordinator and PhD student with the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. “There was very little information available to point us in the right direction and we didn’t know what to expect. That we were able to find it with so few leads and in a relatively short period of time shows how a little bit of effort and willpower can go a long way in finding some of these special species lost to science.”

mouse deer
© Trail camera capturing the rediscovered Silver-backed Chevrotain. Southern Institute of Ecology/Global Wildlife Conservation/Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research/NCNP

The silver-backed chevrotain was first described in 1910, four different times in southern Vietnam, and then once again in central Vietnam in 1990. But nothing since then, making it one of the more elusive and least understood animals around. In the last few years, however, local villagers and government forest rangers reported sightings of a gray chevrotain – different from the silver-backed chevrotain.

So a team from GWC, Southern Institute of Ecology, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, and local communities set three camera traps for a five-month period in a part of southern Vietnam where possible sightings may have occurred. The result: 275 photos of the species!

“It is an amazing feat to go from complete lack of knowledge of the wildlife of the Greater Annamites 25 years ago, to now having this question mark of the silver-backed chevrotain resolved,” said Barney Long, GWC senior director of species conservation. “But the work is only beginning with the rediscovery and initial protection measures that have been put in place—now we need to identify not just a few individuals on camera trap, but one or two sites with sizable populations so that we can actually protect and restore the species.”

A team is now setting out to learn as much as they can about the elusive species and they plan to develop and implement a conservation action plan that strengthens enforcement and protection of the species across its range.

“We had no idea what to expect, so I was surprised and overjoyed when we checked the camera traps and saw photographs of a chevrotain with silver flanks,” said Nguyen. “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.”

A paper on the rediscovery was published in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Fore more, see: Solving the Mysteries of the Lost Silver-backed Chevrotain.