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Page last updated at 09:09 GMT, Friday, 22 May 2009 10:09 UK
Rare deer reveals signs of life
Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

Visayan spotted deer
A captive Visayan spotted deer (C. Turner).

One of the world's most elusive mammals has revealed itself.

Footprints and scat belonging to the Visayan spotted deer have been found deep in the Philippines jungle.

Less than 300 of the deer are thought to remain, confined to just two islands, making it one of the most vulnerable of all mammals.

The discovery proves a small population survives in the wild, despite the ongoing threat to its survival from hunting and deforestation.

An expedition team led by Craig Turner and James Sawyer decided to explore the inner forests of the North Negros Natural Park (NNNP) on Negros Island in the Philippines.

The park is considered an important biodiversity hotspot, yet it's one of the most vulnerable forest ecosystems in the world, with only 16,500h of forest remaining in a park of more than 80,000h.

Visayan spotted deer prints along riverbank
Evidence of an elusive creature (J. Benares).

It is also one of the least explored of all tropical forests.

"We held an ambition to access the interior and undertake the first biological exploration," says Turner, an environmental consultant who for years helped organise conservation work on the fringes of the park.

So after five years of planning, Turner, Sawyer and colleagues in the Philippines founded an organisation called the Negros Interior Biodiversity Expedition to do just that. A number of conservation organisations helped fund the trip, including the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation Inc, Coral Cay Conservation and the Zoological Society of London.

At the start of April, they entered the interior. As well as surveying for new species, the expedition team kept a particular eye out for the Visayan spotted deer (Rusa alfredi), also known as the Philippine spotted deer. One of three deer species native to the country, it holds the distinction of possibly being the rarest deer in the world.

After three days of walking, the team found what they were looking for, stumbling across several sets of tracks along the edge of a river.

This discovery confirms they are surviving, but doesn't tell us if they are thriving
Research leader Craig Turner

Three days later, the team then found evidence of where the deer had been feeding on young palm trees. Being so far apart, the two discoveries suggest that more than one group of Visayan spotted deer survive in the park.

Over the following days, the team also found two piles of deer scat in a natural clearing, at a site where they hoped to trap bats. The scat lay in small piles of 20 to 30 pellets with a trail of deer footprints leading away.

The team can be confident they found signs of life of the Visayan spotted deer because it is the only deer species living on Negros island. There are also few other large mammals on the island that could have left such signs.

Deer scat
Deer scat like no other (C. Turner).

"Other species such as the Visayan warty pig and civets have distinctly different scat," Turner says.

His team were thrilled by the discovery.

The last major survey of the Visayan spotted deer, conducted back in 1991, found that even then it had become extinct over 95% of its former range. The Visayan spotted deer is endemic to the Visayan islands of the central Philippines, but while it once lived on seven, it now survives on two, Negros and Panay. The two populations have been seperated for thousands of years, with no confirmed sighting of the deer on Negros since the mid-1990s.

"It has been assumed that the species persists in the NNNP but no scientific proof has been presented in recent years, and very little field work has been completed on this species," says Turner.

North Negros Natural Park
The unexplored interior of the North Negros Natural Park (C. Turner).

"This discovery confirms they are surviving, but doesn't tell us they are thriving."

As well as the deer, the expedition also discovered some unusual plants, including ground orchids and pitchers, and numerous bird and frog species which they hope to investigate further.




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