It’s easy to fall in love with species like elephants or tigers – they’re high profile and charismatic, but there are thousands of other species out there that don’t have the same widespread appeal but are just as much in need of our help.
This is why BIAZA member Knowsley Safari are now working with Wildlife Alliance and other partners to try and save Eld’s deer (Rucervus eldii), a beautiful but little-known deer, from extinction.
Listed as Endangered by the IUCN, Eld’s deer are a medium sized deer that historically could be found throughout South and Southeast Asia. Now their range is incredibly fragmented, and their future is at risk. Different sub-species of Eld’s deer have been defined, considering genetic evidence and geographical location. Rucervus eldii siamensis is the subspecies that was originally found throughout Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, but Cambodia is now its only stronghold. Sadly, stronghold is perhaps too optimistic a word to use – although the overwhelming majority of R. e. siamensis are thought to be found in Cambodia, in reality this could equate to less than 700 individuals.
In Cambodia, Eld’s deer are usually found in dry forests where the tree cover isn’t too dense, with lots of large grassland patches. Dry forest is technically known as Deciduous Dipterocarp Forest (try saying that three times quickly after a long day in the field!). Within the dry forest, the presence of forest pools called trapaengs is crucial to the survival of Eld’s deer. There is extreme variation in environmental conditions throughout the dry and wet season. In dry season, hundreds of smaller trapaengs dry up completely, with only the largest remaining as a vital water source for the deer.
For a species to go from one of the most common to one of the most endangered is a real tragedy. For it to happen in the time frame that has been in seen in the case of the Eld’s – well it’s even worse. It’s thought that there has been a 90% decline in Cambodian populations from the late 1990s to 2008, because of hunting and, increasingly, habitat loss. If action is not taken soon, it may be too late. As the holder of the last remaining wild populations, Cambodia is the obvious place to do this.
Wildlife Alliance, an international NGO is looking to boost population numbers and improve the gene pools of the Eld’s Deers’ wild populations. In order to do this successfully, conservation projects require a lot of forward planning, including the correct husbandry and care of animals in the initial captive breeding programme. The Eld’s Deer cared for by Wildlife Alliance are housed at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, but despite their best efforts, their current enclosure no longer provides the deer with an enriching environment. Following an initial visit, Knowsley Safari have decided to fund the construction of a new, larger habitat for a herd of Eld’s Deer and sent two of their team out to investigate the herd behaviours and interactions with each other.
Sarah Armstrong, Knowsley Safari Keeper explains “Our overall aim for the project is for the reintroduction and reinforcement of populations in Cambodia of the endangered Eld’s Deer. So although having the correct habitats and protection ready for them is important, the individuals released need to be physically fit and behave naturally in order to raise their young, be vigilant against predators and forage safely and efficiently. Therefore, whilst we were in Cambodia we needed to ‘get to know’ the herd better.
"We identified each individual by physical characteristics and once confident of who was who, we were able to give each deer their own behavioural profile. In order to do this, a list of behaviours called an Ethogram, which was designed by ourselves, was used to record behaviours giving us an understanding of each deers ‘personality’. We also investigated how the herd interacted with one another, which individuals had social interactions with others and which may not have such a bond.
"Both aspects of our trip were important as correctly identifying the deer in the future will be crucial for our best candidates moving to their new enclosure. Once safely moved, those individuals we found to have the most natural behaviours and characteristics needed for the wild will be left to breed naturally and raise their young ready for release.”
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