Fading stripes in Southeast Asia: first insight into the ecology and conservation of an elusive and threatened rabbit
Camera trap pictures don’t lie—and yet the animal on my computer screen was almost too fantastical to believe. This was no ordinary rabbit. It had small ears, a grizzled body, and black stripes spilling across its hindquarters, all ending in a rust-colored rump. It was one of the most mysterious and elusive mammals on the planet: the Annamite striped rabbit. With that first camera trap photo, I knew that I wanted to study this species – both because it is fascinating to get a glimpse into the life of secretive rainforest animals, and to provide information that could help with its conservation.
The Annamite striped rabbit is found only in the rugged and remote rainforests of the Annamites mountains on the border of Viet Nam and Lao PDR (Lao). Remarkably, it was only discovered by science in 1996, when a biologist stumbled upon strange-looking skins in a local market. Despite the fact that it has been more than twenty years since its scientific debut, no studies had focused on the species, and biologists know virtually nothing even about its basic ecology. The Annamite striped rabbit is something of a lagomorph black hole. This lack of information is problematic from a conservation perspective because the Annamites experience one of the highest levels of poaching of any tropical region.
Poaching casts a dark shadow over the incredible biodiversity of the Annamites. In Viet Nam and Lao it is primarily accomplished by the setting of wire snares, which act like ‘drift nets of the land.’ The magnitude of snaring in the Annamites is difficult to comprehend: in many protected areas, snares blanket the landscape, and hundreds can be found in a single days’ walk. This level of snaring has pushed at least two other Annamite endemics—the saola and the large-antlered muntjac—to the brink of extinction. Would the Annamite striped rabbit be next? How was the species faring under such intensive poaching pressure? We needed more information to find out.
Over the course of two years we set camera traps in five areas of Viet Nam and Lao, collecting hundreds of Annamite striped rabbit camera trap photos and assembling the largest dataset on the species to date. The results from this work have just been published in Oryx, and while they provide an unprecedented insight into the ecology of this little-known species, they also reveal the fragility of its existence in this area. Although we recorded Annamite striped rabbit in all of our sites, it was not common anywhere, and appeared to be approaching local extinction in one area. We believe that it is likely that its populations have declined severely from historic levels—another victim of relentless snaring.
And yet there are many reasons to be hopeful. That the Annamite striped rabbit still occurs at all in such heavily-hunted areas means that, with effective anti-poaching initiatives, populations can rebound. Because our camera trapping provides a conservation baseline for the species in our study sites, future population changes can be assessed in a quantifiable, robust way. One of the most remarkable findings from our study was to document the Annamite striped rabbit and other rare and endangered species in an ungazetted forest area in Lao. Such surprises are fuel for conservation optimism. More importantly, this finding supports further ongoing initiatives to protect the area.
Our results show that, fortunately, the Annamite mountains haven’t lost their stripes. But we have to act now if we are to protect this amazing species.
The paper ‘A little-known endemic caught in the South-east Asian extinction crisis: the Annamite striped rabbit Nesolagus timminsi’ is now freely available until December 10 in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.
Surveys were conducted by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, in collaboration with WWF-Vietnam and WWF-Laos (under the CarBi project), and local protected area counterparts. Funding for systematic surveys was provided by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF FKZ: 01LN1301A), Leibniz-IZW, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Safari Club International. Funding for non-systematic surveys was provided by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Andrew Tilker received support through a Fulbright scholarship. The CarBi project was provided by Internationale Klimaschutzinitiative of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety (BMBU) and Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW).
Photo 1: Leibniz-IZW / WWF-Laos CarBi Project / Xe Sap National Protected Area
Photos 2, 3, 4 and 5: Andrew Tilker