Rainy-day thoughts

Muntjac pop into my head at the oddest times: while drinking coffee with friends, or at the grocery store stocking up on supplies for the week, or while driving my motorbike along the winding streets of Hue, which poses a not-inconsiderable traffic hazard to the other drivers. But most often when I am alone. Like now. It’s early afternoon, the rain is falling steadily, and I am sitting on an empty veranda, sipping coffee and listening to the rhythmic drumming of raindrops as they patter against the roof overhead. I’m deep in the jungles of Borneo, where I’ve travelled for a couple weeks to help out on another camera-trapping project. I am, to be sure, a long way from my old stomping grounds in Laos and Vietnam: but in my mind, in my heart, I’m back in the Annamites, and I’m thinking of one thing and one thing only: muntjac. Or, to be more specific, I am thinking about Large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis), that recently-discovered species found on the border of Laos and Vietnam and nowhere else on the planet. Usually at these moments I marvel at the majesty of the animal. But today, instead of awing at its regal beauty, I find myself worrying. Perhaps, I think to myself, this is just a case of rainy-day blues. Or perhaps it’s simply a result of the mental, even emotional, collapse that comes from extended fieldwork. But I think it’s more than that, and it’s more concrete: I realize, with a heaviness, that the species might be gone from the areas in which I work.

This morning I spent several hours sifting through hundreds of muntjac camera trap photos taken in the central Annamites. I pulled all of the photos together and put myself into what is, for lack of a better phrase, a muntjac trance. Photo, identify, click. Photo, identify, click. Reach for another sip of coffee. Photo, identify, click. And at the end of the morning, when I looked at the results, I saw that, despite enormous camera-trapping effort, only two of the three Annamite muntjacs were recorded: the red muntjac (Muntiacus muntjac) and the dark muntjac complex (Muntiacus rooseveltorum / truongsonensis). With every next-photo that I looked at I prayed for the short, stubby, triangular tail or wide-flaring, prominent, impossible-to-miss pedicles of Large-antlered muntjac. But it just wasn’t there. It was red muntjac after red muntjac, the most common species in Southeast Asia, with a few dark muntjac sprinkled in. The only conclusion I can draw is this: the Large-antlered muntjac is either already extirpated in these protected areas, another victim of the rampant snaring that has consumed Vietnam, or it is so rare that it’s nearly impossible to detect. Best-case scenario: it’s balanced on the knife-edge of extinction, in close company with the Saola. And that sobering thought is enough to give me pause on this rain-swept afternoon.

But, worried as I am about the Large-antlered muntjac, I still have hope that it can be saved. Hope, after all, is a gold-tinged magnet burning white-hot in the brilliant afternoon sun: it exerts a powerful pull and glows with a warmth that can’t be ignored. And so now, as I drain the last dregs of my coffee and look out across the vast forests before me, I find myself comforted by the fact that the species is present in at least two protected areas in central Laos. If we can hold on to those populations then the Large-antlered muntjac will survive. We must act now, and quickly, to protect these last-remaining pockets. But at least they’re there. The species may be gone from my areas—but it still survives in the remote jungles north of where I work. And that gives me hope.

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Muntjac skull – another victim of rampant snaring

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Distant forests of Laos: stronghold for the Large-antlered muntjac 

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