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Gaur's track in Cat Tien National Park
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Table of contents

2006

green bullet Decembre 17, Discovered, wiped out and cloned: the bizarre life cycle of the saola
green bullet November 13, NASA data helps predict bison travels
green bullet October 30, Herds of bison to return to US
green bullet October 22, Asia's kouprey may not be new species
green bullet October 17, Ancient miniature buffalo discovered
green bullet August 9, China puts price on head of rare Wild Yak
green bullet July 6, Anthrax kills bison in southern N.W.T., Canada
green bullet June 27, Gaur killed by guards in Dakrong Nature Reserve, Vietnam
green bullet June 10, Governor's bison ideas irk ranchers
green bullet June 9, Banteng hunted in Ea So Nature Reserve, Vietnam
green bullet April 25, Re-introduction of European bison in Central Russia
green bullet April 21 - May 4, Search for the kouprey: trail runs cold for Cambodia’s national animal
green bullet April 12, Consensus on cross-border measures and priorities for future of Bialowieza Forest
green bullet February 15, Wild buffalo faces extinction
green bullet January 10, Sixty mithuns die of unknown disease

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17th December 2007, The Observer
Discovered, wiped out and cloned: the bizarre life cycle of the saola

By Robin McKie, science editor

Just over a decade ago, the saola made headlines round the world. Scientists discovered the animal in the remote Vietnamese highlands, the first large mammal to have been found anywhere in the world in more than half a century.

Since then the creature, which looks like an antelope but is related to cattle, has been discovered in several areas across the country. In the late 1990s ecologists estimated about a thousand of these shy creatures, with their long pairs of distinctive black horns, were living in the Annamite hills of central Vietnam and Laos. The creature quickly became an icon for Vietnam's fledgling environmental movement.

But not for much longer. Scientists working with WWF (formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature) discovered last month that in less than 10 years saola numbers had crashed to around 200. Even worse, population numbers are becoming so thin that prospects of them meeting and breeding are now becoming worryingly slim. Now Vietnamese scientists are locked in a bitter battle about how to save the saola.

The WWF team believes many saolas are being caught in snares for other creatures, such as bears, which are prized in the East for the 'healing properties' of their gall bladders. In addition, the saola is often hunted in its own right, so its distinctive head can be mounted as a trophy.

Scientists have been unable to breed saolas in captivity. About 20 have been captured but all died within a few weeks, with the exception of two that were released into the wild again. According to David Wildt, head of the Centre for Species Survival at the Smithsonian, near Front Royal, Virginia, this problem is not unexpected. 'Certain animals in captivity, especially ungulates, are highly sensitive to stress,' he told the journal Science.

Thus Vietnam has found it is close to achieving an unenviable ecological record: discovering a new species of large mammal and then rendering it extinct in a few years. It is a prospect that has so alarmed scientists they have launched the ultimate hi-tech bid to save the stricken creature: they are planning to clone it.

The project is the idea of scientists at the Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology in Hanoi. Led by Bui Xuan Nguyen, the team has already isolated saola DNA from tissue samples from creatures in the wild and, working with French scientists, have injected these into the eggs of cows, a goat and a swamp buff alo. Early saola embryos were successfully created this way, but all died after a few days.

'We don't have any idea how to get past this stage,' Nguyen admitted to Science - the basic problem, he said, being a lack of knowledge about how saolas breed. 'We have no information on the reproductive cycle and no idea how long pregnancy lasts.' However, he said that recent progress had been encouraging. Nguyen and other scientists remain confident they can clone the saola, a prospect that does little to impress other researchers. 'Cloning is a tool for last-ditch heroics,' said Wildt. 'It's too premature to consider it.'

Or as another ecologist put it: 'There is no conservation benefit from cloning the saola. The money would be better spent trying to protect the species in the wild.'

The saolas, which were once icons of conservation, are now almost extinct.

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13th November 2006, The Billings Gazette
NASA data helps predict bison travels

By Mike Stark of the gazette staff

Few things influence the winter movement of bison in Yellowstone National Park more than snow.

These days, those who try to predict their annual migration are getting help from NASA.

A project started in 2003 uses NASA satellite data and computer models to offer nearly real-time predictions about snow conditions, which in turn give a clue about which direction bison might be wandering.

Managing bison in winter, particularly those that leave Yellowstone each winter in search of food at lower elevations, has been a source of controversy for years.
Ranchers and state officials say bison could spread the disease brucellosis to cattle, while bison advocates argue that hazing and capturing migrating animals is treating them more like domestic stock than wildlife.

Added to the mix last year and this year is a state-run hunt.

That means decisions about how to manage bison are often scrutinized - all the more reason to provide as much objective data as possible, said Fred Watson, of California State University Monterey Bay, one of the principal people behind the project.

The five-year project, which started in 2003, is a joint effort between CSUMB, Montana State University and the National Park Service.

In particular, it pays attention to when the snow melts in different areas as a way to predict when bison will stop moving toward the park's border and start back to its interior.

The data was used last year when Yellowstone officials held 300 bison captive until snow and vegetation conditions reached a point in the spring where the animals wouldn't try leaving again.

The project starts with the basic premise that there's a relationship between snow accumulation and how bison move in and around Yellowstone.

"Snow depth is an important factor in determining when and to what extent bison will attempt to cross northern and western boundaries of the park," Watson said.

The new program uses satellite data and computer models to simulate snowpack and melting at several spots in the park based on a variety of factors, including information from weather stations in Yellowstone, vegetation, wind exposure, geothermal heat and long-term climate records.

The result is not an actual, real-time picture of snow conditions but a simulation meant to give park managers an idea of likely conditions on the ground.

By looking at conditions inside the park and beyond its borders, the researchers can give a day-by-day analysis of the likelihood of snow conditions, which provides insight to how bison might respond.

Contact Mike Stark at mstark[at]billingsgazette.com or 657-1232.

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30th October 2006, New Scientist
Herds of bison to return to US

Once the dominant animal in the American west, bison were slaughtered in huge numbers as European settlers pushed across the continent - 31 million between 1868 and 1881 alone. Now moves are afoot to bring them back.

"One hundred years from now wild bison will be an integral part of land use and management in the American west," says Steven Sanderson, head of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who this week hosted a meeting in Denver, Colorado, on the ecological future of the animal. At the meeting, the American Prairie Foundation, a conservationist land trust, announced that it has released 20 pure-bred bison onto its land in Montana. Most of the 350,000 individuals roaming the prairies are hybrids, the result of interbreeding between bison and cattle.

It makes ecological sense to restore giant herds of bison, says Kent Redford, a WCS biologist. "Wildfires burn less hot where bison have grazed, benefiting everything from seed propagation to invertebrates," he says. "Why use cattle when you have bison?"

Kenneth Trospercq, of the Northern Arapaho tribe, agrees. He wants bison back on the tribe's reservation in Wyoming. "The bison were everything to us. We want them to be a part of our daily lives again," he says.

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22nd October 2006, CBS News
Asia's kouprey may not be new species

By Michael Casey AP Environmental Writer

Among the rarest mammals in Southeast Asia, the kouprey's discovery almost 70 years ago in the jungles of Cambodia stunned the scientific community and led to a decades-long campaign to save it from extinction. But what if this elusive forest ox wasn't a natural species after all?

But what if this elusive forest ox wasn't a natural species after all?

That is the controversial premise raised by Northwestern University biologist Gary Galbreath and his colleagues F.H. Weiler and J.C. Mordacq in a paper published in April in the Journal of Zoology.

Galbreath and his team compared the DNA from two kouprey skulls _ something previously impossible because of technological limitations _ with that of the Cambodian banteng and found they were similar.

They concluded that the kouprey, which may well be extinct, most likely originated as a hybrid bred from domestic banteng and zebu cattle in Cambodia a century ago and only later became wild, rather than arising in the wild as a natural species.

"The kouprey has acquired a rather romantic, exotic reputation," said Galbreath, associate director of Northwestern's Program in Biological Sciences in Evanston, Ill. "Some people would understandably be sad to see it dethroned as a species."

The paper stirred up wild cattle specialists who have spent decades trying to save the kouprey. They say the conclusion was hasty and based on insufficient data.

The kouprey, a nomadic ox with dramatic curved horns that resembles a water buffalo, was first identified in 1937 as a new species. It was discovered in the forests of Cambodia, but scientists believe its range at one time stretched into parts of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

Conservationists ever since have led a frustrating campaign to save the kouprey.

American zoologist Charles Wharton failed in the 1960s to capture the beasts _ two died and three escaped _ as part of a project to raise them in captivity in Texas. A proposal by three Asian governments in the 1980s to export frozen kouprey embryos to U.S. zoos never advanced because no one could find any of the animals.

The last confirmed sighting by a Western scientist was in the 1960s. Civil wars in Cambodia during the 1970s and 1980s kept conservationists out of the country, and more recent searches failed.

Among the most infamous searches was one in 1993 led by American journalist Nate Thayer, who took an elephant caravan that included former Khmer Rouge guerrillas, an American mercenary and the publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine.

They spent a fruitless two weeks looking for the ox, which grows to a height of about 6 1/2 feet and weight of 1,300 to 2,000 pounds.

"We never found the kouprey, but did come across Khmer Rouge soldiers who spotted us and fled, presumably to inform their commandeers of a group of white guys heavily armed in the area," Thayer said in an e-mail message.

Weiler, who took part in the DNA study with Galbreath, also led several unsuccessful expeditions in Cambodia from 1997 until last year. He hired elephant and tiger trackers and interviewed nearly 300 people to get leads. Despite vivid stories of the beast in the jungle, he never saw one.

"I came to the conclusion that the kouprey is extinct," Weiler said. "I've closed the book. It's possible three or four will pop up somewhere. But it's highly unlikely."

Not everyone agrees. The World Conservation Union still designates the kouprey as critically endangered and estimates there are less than 200 left in remote parts of Indochina.

"I think it's a little too early to give up hope. It is hard to prove something is extinct," said Simon Hedges, a wild cattle expert. "When you consider that new species are still being discovered in Indochina, I don't think it's entirely unrealistic to believe there might be pockets of species such as the kouprey living in the same area."

More controversial is the suggestion by Galbreath and his team that the kouprey should never have been listed as a species in the first place, theorizing it was likely bred as a domestic hybrid "to produce a strong animal that survives in difficult circumstances."

Calling it the most likely explanation based on the DNA testing, the animal's limited geographic range and its physical similarities to domestic cattle, Galbreath said that "it is surely desirable not to waste time and money trying to locate or conserve a domestic breed gone wild."

"The limited funds available should be used to protect wild species," he said.

But Galbreath has done little to change long-standing opinions among kouprey enthusiasts.

Alexandre Hassanin, a French scientist who along with Anne Ropiquet announced in 2004 that they had sequenced the kouprey DNA to show it was a natural species, said he disagrees with the paper.

The Cambodia government, which in the 1960s designated the kouprey as its national animal, has no plans to change that status.

"In my view, those researchers are not so sure either. If it was a hybrid, when did that happen?" said Yim Voeuntharn, Cambodia's deputy minister of agriculture. "There is no specific evidence."

Hedges, the wild cattle expert, calls Galbreath's findings "premature" and "counterproductive," saying it is wrong to discount the kouprey as a species based on such a small sample of DNA.

"If their analysis shows anything, it is that there are some hybrid banteng with kouprey ancestry," he said. "They don't show anything beyond that. They are arguing on very little information that the kouprey is a feral relic."

Galbreath agrees more DNA testing is needed and plans to take samples from banteng in other parts of Southeast Asia.

"For half a century, biologists have been complacent about this," he said. "Everyone fell in love with the idea that the kouprey was a natural species."

Associated Press writer Ker Munthit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.

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17th October 2006, Live Science
Ancient Miniature Buffalo Discovered

By Jeanna Bryner

Lawrence Heaney Dwarf water buffalo

The bones of an extinct dwarf species of buffalo were recently unearthed on the Philippine island of Cebu.

Dubbed Bubalus cebuensis (BOO-buh-luhs seh-boo-EN-sis), the miniature buffalo (image) stood at just more than two feet, three times smaller than today’s domestic buffalo, and weighed a mere 350 pounds. It probably lived during the Pleistocene (Ice Age) or Holocene Epochs, between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago.

"Natural selection can produce dramatic body-size changes. On islands where there is limited food and a small population, large mammals often evolve to much smaller size," said lead researcher Darin Croft of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

The finding, detailed in the October issue of the Journal of Mammalogy, is the first well-supported example of "island dwarfing" among cattle or their relatives and could have implications for the current debate about Homo floresiensis, a recently discovered hominid that some scientists say is a new dwarf species.

Sizing up

Fossils are rare in the tropical environments of the Philippines, a region lacking open rocky patches where fossils are often buried and preserved, and this is the first fossil mammal of any age reported from Cebu Island. The fossil remains were found 50 years ago in a phosphate mine by engineer Michael Armas. Nearly four decades later, he showed them to physician Hamilcar Intengan, who recognized their importance and brought them to The Field Museum for study in 1995.

Scientists, including paleontologist John Flynn of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, examined the partial skeleton, which included two teeth, two vertebrae, two upper arm bones, a foot bone [image] and two hoof bones. The species had relatively large teeth, which is typical of island dwarfs, but also relatively big feet, which are generally reduced along with other body features in dwarfing.

“The reason that might be is because evolution actually works in different ways—we call it mosaic evolution—that not all features change in exactly the same way all the time. For whatever reason, this particular species didn’t reduce the foot proportions the same way that dwarfs of other species on other islands might have,” Flynn told LiveScience.

Island survival

The finding supports the idea that the earliest water buffalo were large and first evolved in Southeast Asia. The animals likely traveled from the mainland to the Philippine islands when sea levels dropped roughly 400 feet during the peak of the “Ice Age” about 20,000 years ago.

Less food was available on the islands and the buffalos might have shrunk to compensate, Flynn said. That could be why this buffalo is smaller than two living related species—a domestic buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) and the tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis).

The tamaraw is also a dwarf and lives only on the Philippine island of Mindoro. At about three feet tall at the shoulder and 500 pounds, it is much larger than the newly discovered species. The researchers speculate that the new dwarf buffalo was smaller than tamaraw because it roamed an even smaller island that had less food.

In combination with the tamaraw on Mindoro and a report of buffalo fossil teeth found on another Philippine island, Luzon, the new discovery indicates this genus might have once lived throughout the Philippines, most of which is an oceanic archipelago, never connected to any continental land mass.

Dwarf debate

The research could provide insights into debates on the evolution of small-bodied species elsewhere in the tropics such as the proposed new hominid, Homo floresiensis, found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.

While Flynn doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of the dwarf hominid, the new discovery does support the validity of dwarf island species in general—indirectly lending weight to the dwarf hominid. If a buffalo could shrink, why not a hominid?

“This discovery emphasizes that it’s not all that uncommon to find dwarf species evolving on islands,” Flynn said.

 

9th August 2006, Shanghai Daily
China puts price on head of rare wild Yak

By Gu Jia

How do you say "cognitive dissonance" in Chinese? This Sunday, Chinese officials will be auctioning off licenses to kill rare wildlife -- including some endangered species -- to raise funds for ... wildlife conservation. Due to the country's gun laws, only foreigners can bid for permits at the auction, which will be supervised by the State Forestry Administration. Starting bids to kill a wolf (the only predator on the list) are $200; red deer start at $6,000, and the right to kill a wild yak starts at $40,000. Only about 15,000 of the yaks remain in the world -- but you could make it 14,999! Some rules do apply: The winning hunters will stalk their prey in five western provinces, and must be accompanied by a guide to make sure they kill only male animals. While paying to hunt rare animals isn't a new trend in China, international groups have previously had to petition for the pleasure on a case-by-case basis. Glad to see that inefficiency smoothed out.

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6th July 2006, CBC News
Anthrax kills bison in southern Northwest Territories, Canada

Wildlife officials have closed off an area southeast of Fort Resolution after 14 bison carcasses were found in the region in the past week.

Preliminary tests show two of the animals found in the Slave River Lowlands, 80 kilometres from Resolution, died from anthrax.

The majority of the bison were mature bulls.

While those tests have not yet been confirmed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has barred travel into the region.

Anthrax occurs naturally in the area.

"Under certain conditions, especially when you have high water conditions followed by hot, dry weather, the spores become concentrated in low-lying areas," said Environment Department spokesperson Judy McLinton.

"The bison then usually contract the disease when they inhale contaminated soil when they're rolling around, wallowing in dust baths."

There have been 12 outbreaks of anthrax in the area since 1962. In the summer of 2000 an outbreak killed at least 42 bison in nearby Wood Buffalo National Park.

McLinton says this is considered to be an average-sized outbreak.

Infected bison cannot pass the disease on to other bison, but humans can be at risk if they come in contact with infected animals or carcasses.

McLinton says the bison carcasses will be destroyed later this week, and the department will conduct flights over the area until mid-August to look for more dead animals.

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27th June 2006, Sài Gòn Giải Phóng
Gaur killed by guards in Dakrong Nature Reserve, Vietnam

A gaur was killed at the beginning of June in the Dakrong Nature Reserve in Quang Tri province. The head and limbs of the animal were cut off and taken to the Nature Reserve headquarters. Guards of the Nature Reserve who killed the animal said it was done because the animal was already injured.

The gaur was part of a herd of 10 to 13 individuals living in the Nature Reserve and had often been seen in the buffer zone by locals in Trieu Nguyen commune. However, because of very high levels of poaching in this region this herd has become more and more wild and has been seen less often in recent times.

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10th June 2006, The Billings Gazette
Governor's bison ideas irk ranchers

If Montana continues its current approach to bison that leave Yellowstone National Park, eventually brucellosis will be transmitted to cattle, according to Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

"I don't want to be the governor of Montana when we lose our brucellosis-free status," Schweitzer said.

He traveled to Miles City on Thursday to speak at the mid-year meeting of the Montana Stockgrowers Association to float his idea for fixing the problem: Pay ranchers to remove cattle from the area just outside the park, don't allow bison to wander any farther than they already do and expand the annual bison hunt to keep the numbers in check.

The first step is acknowledging that the current plan, which relies on hazing and sometimes killing bison that leave Yellowstone in the winter, isn't a long-term solution to keeping the disease from spreading to Montana cattle, he said.
Already, Wyoming and Idaho have been stripped of their brucellosis-free status, which means millions of dollars will have to be spent for extra testing and other steps before cattle can be exported.

Montana should take steps, beyond what's happening now, to make sure the disease doesn't hit cattle outside the park's western and northern borders and put an extra squeeze on the entire state's cattle industry, he said.

"My point is: Why should we risk 2 million head of cattle for a very small area?" Schweitzer said in a telephone interview after the meeting in Miles City.

"We'd prefer to eliminate the disease rather than the cattle (from the grazing areas)," said Bill Donald, president of the MSGA. In a phone interview from Miles City on Friday, he said the landowners adjacent to the park are opposed to selling their grazing rights.

"We were looking at having the Interior Department, Agriculture Department and the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana reach a memorandum of understanding to work to eliminate the disease in the bison," Donald said.

He added that Schweitzer was still willing to have bison hazed back into the park in the spring so that no bison cows had their calves outside the park.

Donald said the MSGA passed a resolution opposed to eliminating the cattle for grazing near the park. The group endorsed expanded bison hunting as a secondary management tool he said.

Montana reactivated its bison hunting plan this past year, distributing 50 permits to hunters. The Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission is considering expanding the bison hunting to 100 or more this year.

"The governor issued an invitation for us to keep working on it," Donald said. "We appreciate that."

Nearly every winter, bison leave Yellowstone in search of food and lower elevations. A state and federal plan approved in 2000 allows bison to be pushed back into the park and, in some cases, captured and sent to slaughter.

The plan is designed to reduce the risk of transmitting brucellosis, which can cause abortions and other problems, from bison to cows. Although there is no documented case of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle in the wild, controlled studies have shown it is possible.

This winter, more than 900 bison were captured on Yellowstone's northern edge, and about 850 were sent to slaughter. Some 300 were caught and released later in the spring.

Schweitzer said the federal government spends about $750,000 a year managing bison that wander out of Yellowstone.

He's proposing that money could be used to pay property owners not to run cattle on the land where bison go each year. An expanded bison hunt could reduce the population, and natural, geographic "choke points" could keep the animals from moving too far, he said.

"I am not proposing to increase these zones, which buffalo would be allowed to roam," Schweitzer said.

He has also suggested that a quarantine area could be set up for cattle outside Gardiner where cows would have to be tested for the disease as they enter and as they leave and would not be used for breeding in Montana or any other state.

This proposal is similar to a resolution passed in March by the Western States Livestock Health Association, which stated, "When co-mingling cannot be avoided, the Western States Livestock Health Association strongly supports quarantine of the exposed cattle herd until herd testing and epidemiological investigation indicates the herd presents no evidence of brucellosis infection."

The association added that if its recommendations are not implemented, it may consider additional requirements and sanctions upon the Greater Yellowstone Area states, i.e. Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

Text by Mike Stark and Jim Gransbery

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9th June 2006, Law Newspaper, Vietnam
Banteng hunted in Ea So Nature Reserve, Vietnam
Dak Lak province

On June 6, rangers of the Ea So Nature Reserve discovered and confiscated the head and limbs of a banteng (Bos javanicus) from four local hunters. The hunters, which were arrested, were residents of Ea Kar District in Dak Lak province.

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25th April 2006, Re-introduction News
Re-introduction of European bison in Central Russia

by T. P. Sipko and I.A Mizin

The total number of European bison in the world has not been increasing during the last 15 years, and numbers about 3,000 individuals, found in small groups in numerous captive centers and free-roaming populations. Each separate population usually has five to seven ancestors from 12 individuals that are founders of all contemporary bison. Symptoms of inbreeding depression are already being observed. There are also risks from epidemics and other unforeseen events thus the need for two geographically separate populations. Suitable territories for the creation of a large, viable population exist only in Russia. After extensive research the following territories which fulfil the biological conditions of European bison, are seen to be appropriate and have long-term protection. They are the 1) Bryansk-Oryol-Kaluga region in the European part of Russia within the Central Russian sub-province of the European broadleaf forest region, 2) the Ust-Kubenskoye Hunting Facility (260 km2) is the second territory and is situated approximately 400 km north from Moscow in the Vologda region.

Animals for re-introduction have been taken from breeding centers of Russia and West Europe. Their gene pools are different because bison from Russia and West Europe have been isolated from each other for almost 100 years. Using non-related bison for breeding is important to have a genetically diverse population. Animals for reintroduction have been transported in boxes and usually released 1-2 months after capture. The transportation of bison for long distances in individual boxes has had good results in Russia compared to transporting several animals in large boxes. The European method of having several animals in large boxes has caused mortality and injuries.

The bison population which is created in the Orlovskoye Polesie National Park territory has the biggest genetic potential compared to other bison groups in the world. This population is in the stage of intensive growth and 20 calves were born in 2005. Animals move to areas adjacent to the park and regularly appear in the Kaluzhskie Zaseki State Nature Reserve. There are three separate herds of bison forming the population and it is necessary to release additional bison in the shortest possible time to get an optimal number of animals. The release of bison in the Bryansky Les State Nature Reserve was unsuccessful and the last individuals have been translocated. Their long migrations and crossing of the Russia-Ukraine state border resulted in poaching was the main reason of decline. There is also a need to find new bison to supplement the Ust-Kubenskoye Hunting Facility’ population. The region situated between the Volga and the Oka rivers has a large population density of bison and this area has a lot of industrial works and road networks with very intensive traffic. This lowland area has small sites of coniferous forest land namely Vilikoozerskoe Hunting Facility, Muromskijj sanctuary and Sknjatinskoe Hunting Facility. These areas do not have enough space for further increase of bison numbers and a low population growth and numerous cases of bison death have been observed and additional re-inforcements of bison in these areas is pointless. The supplementation of bison to the Bukovina population in East Carpathian from Netherlands for restoration of bison number is not appropriate, as males, which have lived on plains, cannot compete with local bulls born in the mountain conditions, during the rutting season. There is a low rate of bison increase amongst captive collections worldwide and the European bison pedigree book (2002) notes that 172 bison were born whilst 112 bison died. Therefore there is a lack of animals for creation of viable long-term populations.

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21st April - 4th May 2006, Phnom Penh Post
Search for the kouprey: trail runs cold for Cambodia’s national animal

A recent study by wildlife researcher Lic Vuthy has reiterated dire assumptions about the existence of Cambodia 's fabled national animal - the kouprey.

In The Existence of the Kouprey in Cambodia , published in the Forestry Administration's annual report, Vuthy analyzed more than six decades of reports and field studies to discern the status of the semi-mythical forest ox once described as "Southeast Asia's version of the Loch Ness monster."

His findings - although hardly surprising - are enormously unfortunate. Vuthy concluded that the last proven sighting of a kouprey was in 1983, and that the species completely vanished some time during the late 1980s.

The report echoes the opinions of international wildlife experts who have been skeptical about the animal's survival for many years.

"It is highly likely and probable that kouprey are biologically extinct in the wild," said Hunter Weiler, adviser to the Department of Forestry and Wildlife. "The best case scenario is that there is a handful of individuals scattered around, dying one by one. I think the kouprey is probably gone, but you can't confirm a negative."

But Vuthy's grim report, which represents the least positive government-sponsored assessment to date, has been disputed within the Forestry Administration and by a government that has been reluctant to tackle an indelicate question: what does a country do if its national animal becomes extinct?

"Lic Vuthy's report does not have enough information," Forestry official Chheang Dany told the Post. "I believe the kouprey is still alive. In fact, we have just sent a team of 30 experts to Rattanakkiri to investigate. They will complete their study by August."

"Most people in the government don't want to believe that the kouprey is gone. It's an emotional and political decision, not one based on fact," Weiler said. "It's kind of like the abominable snowman and a lot of other things - there is a lot faith and ingrained belief behind it but no cold, hard evidence."

Mystery and mishap nothing new

Controversy, mystery and mishap are nothing new for the elusive kouprey. Since it was identified by Western science in 1937, the species' tragicomic history has included heavily armed expeditions, a billion-dollar genetic jackpot - and heartpounding peril.

The search for the stealthy mammal has lured journalists, scientists, big game hunters and adventurers. Over the years, the infrequent forays into the kouprey's war-torn region have been met with disease, land mines, gunplay and, for the most part, frustration.

In Quest for the Kouprey, a definitive 1995 article on the subject, author Steve Hendrix wrote "the most painful of all [has been] the excruciating near-successes of fresh tracks, second-hand reports and botched captures. To show for it all, science has amassed a kouprey collection amounting to little more than a couple hundred pounds of bones and a few feet of grainy film footage."

"It's a bit like looking for the Yeti or Bigfoot, this animal," British biologist James MacKinnon said after his own efforts to locate a kouprey. "First, it was just extremely rare and then it was shrouded in mystery through 30 years of warfare. It's become sort of a symbol of conservation in Indochina."

The most successful kouprey specialist was the late Dr Charles H Wharton, a US conservationist better known for his book Natural Environments of Georgia. A World Wildlife Federation report claims "The best, most complete field data on the kouprey was obtained by Charles Wharton in field work in the 1950s." But Wharton's 2003 obituary in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution made no mention of his pivotal role in one of Cambodia 's greatest mysteries.

In 1951 Wharton led a 90-man group - including 60 government soldiers-on a two-month excursion in the Choam Ksan and Koh Ke areas of Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces. He caught on film six separate groups of kouprey -the only existing footage. Wharton estimated that there were roughly 400 to 500 head of kouprey west of the Mekong , 200 to 300 in Lomphat wildlife sanctuary and 50 in the Samrong district of Kratie province. According to wildlife experts almost everything known about kouprey behavior stems from Wharton's visits and the resulting 1957 film The Forest Cattle Survey Expedition to Southeast Asia - a tour de force of nature documentaries. According to Vuthy's report, after accepting the film from Wharton in 1964, Prince Norodom Sihanouk "designated the kouprey as Cambodia 's National Animal and declared Kulen Prum Tep, Lomphat and Phnom Prich as wildlife sanctuaries for kouprey conservation." The same year, Wharton launched an unlucky mission to capture live kouprey for captive breeding. He was able to capture five, but lost them all: two died and three escaped. "It's amazing the bad luck, the problems that have surrounded the kouprey," Wharton said in an interview with International Wildlife magazine. "It's almost like the thing has some sort of an ancient spell over it that man is not to learn about or capture this animal. Turmoil between the 1960s and 1980s halted kouprey expeditions. In 1982, a group was spotted near the Thai border, but according to Vuthy the search effort was called off after a land mine critically injured the group's guide.

The most eccentric hunt

The most eccentric - and heavily armed - hunt for the animal came in 1994. Former Post reporter Nate Thayer led a motley band of 26 mercenaries, armed soldiers and journalists - including Ker Munthit of AP, Michael Hayes of the Post and British photographer Tim Page - into Cambodia's remote northeast. In a subsequent Post article Thayer wrote "After compiling a team of expert jungle trackers, scientists, security troops, elephant mahouts and one of the most motley and ridiculous looking groups of armed journalists in recent memory, we marched cluelessly into Khmer Rouge-controlled jungles along the old Ho Chi Minh trail."

The two-week, 150 km field survey - called the Cambodian Kourpey Research Project - made no sightings of kouprey but estimated optimistically that evidence suggested a herd of fewer than a dozen still existed in a small region of Mondulkiri. "There were several early casualties from heat prostration and other manifestations of badly-out-of-shape bodies addled by long histories of drug and alcohol abuse," wrote Thayer, who funded the $30,000 expedition.

The last kouprey survey was led by Weiler in January 1999, along the Sre Pok river. Again the trip yielded no evidence of kouprey but did result in a film, Search for the Kouprey. "To my knowledge, that was the last kouprey-specific expedition," Weiler said. "I personally think, and many NGOs agree, Kouprey searches are a waste of time and money. Any areas it was in the past or might still be have been surveyed within the last decade and are looked over almost monthly."

Key dates in the hunt for an elusive beast

1937: The kouprey (Bos sauveli) species is "discovered" by the director of Vincennes Zoo in Paris after a calf captured in Preah Vihear province grows into an animal unknown to Western science. It is the last large mammal on earth to be given a new classification until 1992. The only kouprey studied in captivity, it starves to death during the World War II German occupation of France .

1940: Harvard University published a report that defines the kouprey as genetically separate from all other known mammals and belonging to its own genus. The report claims that the kouprey is a Pleistocene ancestor of domestic cattle.

1951: US biologist Dr Charles H Wharton leads a 90-man expedition into Cambodia and studies a dozen different groups of kouprey on film. The brief observations form the basis of modern knowledge about kouprey behaviour. Wharton estimates 500 kouprey exist in the wild.

1964: Head of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who kept a kouprey in the Royal Gardens as a child, declares the kouprey Cambodia 's national animal, and designates sanctuaries in Preah Vihear, Ratanakkiri, and Mondulkiri. Also in 1964, Wharton leads a disastrous mission to capture kouprey for captive breeding; his crew captures five and then loses them all - two die and three escape.

1965-1967: World Wildlife Fund (France) former president Pierre Pfeffer makes five extensive expeditions to Indochina , during which he observes several herds of around 15 kouprey and obtains the only still photograph of the animal on record. These are the last recorded kouprey sightings by a scientist.

1975-1979: A wild-meat supplier tells a government researcher that, during the war, he killed six kouprey from a population of 30 in Preah Vihear.

1982: A small herd of kouprey is spotted along Cambodia 's border in Thailand . A massive search is forced to turn back when a tripped landmine injures the guide and the follow-up government expedition concludes the kouprey returned to Cambodia .

1988: An International Workshop on the Kouprey Conservation Program is held in Hanoi during January, attended by researchers and donors from around the world. Workshop guesstimates suggest 27 kouprey remain in Vietnam , 40 to 100 in Laos , and fewer than 200 in Cambodia . An action plan, prepared and published by two major wildlife conservation groups, calls for surveys in all three countries.

1989-90: Surveys take place in Daklak Province and in southern Laos , with negative results. University of Hanoi biologist Ha Dinh Duc conducts a search along Cambodia 's border with Vietnam but the work is cut short when the group comes under fire from Vietnam exiles. Duc is shot from the back of an elephant but survives with wounds to the face and chest.

1994: Journalist Nate Thayer leads the first full-scale ground hunt for kouprey in eastern Cambodia , which is unsuccessful. At the same time, the Cambodia Wildlife protection office and several NGOs sponsor an aerial survey for kouprey in eastern Cambodia . A total of 5,238 sq km is surveyed, involving 34.7 hours flying, but no success.

1995: Noel Vietmeyer, a National Academy of Science specialist in finding economic value in tropical fauna, tells International Wildlife Magazine " [The kouprey] is the holy grail. It's probably the most genetically valuable species on earth... Here's an animal with thousands of years of survivability in the harshest habitats built into it, one that could improve the lot of half of the domestic cattle on earth, maybe all of them..."

1999: Wildlife Protection Office international adviser and kouprey enthusiast Hunter Weiler conducts an official expedition to Eastern Mondulkiri with the Wildlife Protection Office. Documented on film, it results in a movie, Search for the Kouprey, but no kouprey sightings are recorded. He prepares a paper on the status of wild cattle in Cambodia , which states, "The author reluctantly concurs with the local officials and hunters - the kouprey is finished."

2000-2006: Extensive general wildlife surveys involving camera trapping are carried out in the kouprey's former range. The surveys, conducted by the Wildlife Protection Office and Ministry of Environment, find no kouprey.

2001: Deputy Director of the Wildlife Protection Office Men Soriyun publishes Status and Distribution of Wild Cattle in Cambodia in Tiger Paper. Regarding kouprey, he concludes "it is highly unlikely that any breeding population still occurs and the species should be considered effectively extinct in the wild."

2004: The Cambodian government officially redesignates the kouprey the National Animal.

2005: A full-size statue of a kouprey is placed near Wat Phnom. Former forestry administration researcher Lic Vuthy releases an exhaustive review of all available kouprey reports, including interviews with ex-hunters, and concludes that the last credible first-hand reports of kouprey sightings in Cambodia occurred in the 1980s. All subsequent reports have been second and third-hand anecdotes.

2006: Hunter Weiler tells the Post further grants of funds for kouprey-specific surveys "open the door for wasting scarce conservation money on all sorts of half-baked safaris to go out anywhere in former kouprey range... with little realistic possibility of finding anything."

Text by Charles McDermid and Cheang Sokha, Phnom Penh Post, Volume 15, Number 8.

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12th April 2006, European Centre for Nature Conservation
Consensus on cross-border measures and priorities for future of Bialowieza Forest

From 6 to 8 April 2006, the international workshop 'Bialowieza -A forest of hope' took place in Bialowieza, on the border of Poland and Belarus. It was organized by ECNC-European Centre for Nature Conservation, Vereniging Natuurmonumenten, Bialowieza National Park in Poland and Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in Belarus, together with a wide range of other organizations. The workshop was part of a project that will be finalized by the end of May 2006.

The workshop participants discussed ways of enhancing the ecological and social coherence of the Bialowieza Forest as one coherent ecosystem. The workshop resulted in the 'Bialowieza – A forest of hope Appeal 2006', which includes suggestions for concrete priority actions and principles for hydrology, sustainable tourism, forestry and ecological networks, and the links to agriculture. The workshop concurred on joint principles for forest management on both sides of the border. It was concluded that hydrological measures should be among the top priorities for enhancing the functioning of the natural ecosystem.

The proposed activities include the establishment of a cross-border ecological network as part of the European Ecological Network, including testing the establishment of cross-border ecological gateways at two locations in the border fence that currently divides the forest in two, while fully respecting international and national laws, including border police regulations. The ecological network and the gateways would allow species such as the European bison, elk, wolves, and lynx to migrate between the two parts of the forest. The workshop participants hope that these recommendations will receive the support of the relevant authorities.

The workshop stressed that the Bialowieza Forest is a true European ecological and social capital, and a European responsibility. The conservation and management of the Bialowieza Forest in Poland and Belarus should therefore receive much more funds from the international community. It was also stressed that there is a very old tradition of nature conservation and game management in the Forest, ranging back some 600 years. This year, the Bialowieza National Park in Poland is celebrating its 85-year anniversary (http://www.bpn.com.pl). More information on the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park can be found on: http://www.brest.by/bp/page2.shtml

The results of the workshop will be communicated to the Governments of Belarus and Poland, to the Government of the Netherlands (as main funder of the project through the BBI-Matra fund) and to international organizations, such as the European Commission, Council of Europe, European banks and the UN.

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15th February 2006, Wildlife Trust of India
Wild buffalo faces extinction
Chattisgarh
 

With only a few hundreds left in the wild, the wild buffalos (Bubalus bubalis) in India could soon turn extinct unless an urgent action for their conservation is initiated. Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) in collaboration with the Chattisgarh forest department started a three year plan for its revival from the present small population in the state.

The present study is being undertaken in Chattisgarh following a MoU with the forest department. The Wildlife Sanctuaries (WLS) and National Parks (NP), covering a geographical area of about 4200 sq. km. will be studied to identify threats and conservation strategies.

An estimate by the forest department suggests 120 individuals in the state. Udanti WLS is considered to hold the maximum number-about 60 individuals, followed by Indravati NP - about 49 individuals and Pamed WLS about 8 individuals. From the other two, Sitanadi and Baihramgarh Wildlife Sanctuaries considered extinct.

Previous home range of the species extended from eastern Nepal, India, Vietnam and south to Malaysia. During sixties much of their population was substantially reduced and eliminated from the greater part of its former range (IUCN). Now in India, wild buffalos are said to originate only in two states, Chattisgarh in central India and Assam in northeast India. Assam has the maximum number, about 3000 individuals.

According to Rahul Kaul, Director Wild Species WTI, “since it is a big bodied animal, their reproductive rates are slow. Thus annual recruitment in the population is small.”

Disturbances due to cattle rearing, depletion of grazing lands, scarcity of food & water and hybridization with the domestic breed have threatened their existence in the wild. Historically, they preferred low lying alluvial grass lands and their surroundings. Riparian and woodlands were also utilized (IUCN).

Though, plenty of rivers drain these sanctuaries, most dry up during summer, adding to the shortfall of water. Hence, large constructions of water tanks have been a traditional way of conserving these animals.

Another setback faced by these species in the wild has been the tradition of community hunting practiced among some tribes in Chattisgarh, mostly during the Parad festivities. A single kill provided sufficient meat to serve large gatherings. The practice is still continued in some places.

A wild breed weighs about 900 kg and could go upto 1200 depending upon their physical conditions and availability of enough food. They require vast grazing lands and water bodies to live. Buffalos like to wallow in mud pools and water bodies to release body heat. Wallowing also helps them to remove body parasites and other biting flies. Hence they are also commonly known as water buffalo.    

IUCN in 2004 estimated that the total world population is certainly less than 4000 but it may be less than 200 and possibly no pure bred wild Asian buffalo left in the wild. Choudhury in 1994 estimated that the bulk of India’s wild buffalo population (about 90%) is in Assam.

Apart from recording their current population in the state, the project will also try to address some of the problems linked to their habitats. Genetic studies to determine the extent of hybridization with domestic breed and in addition, relationships of different populations and individuals will be studied.

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10th January 2006, Kerala News
Sixty mithuns die of unknown disease

Itanagar: At least 60 mithuns (Bos frontalis, or gaur), the state animal of Arunachal Pradesh, died of an epidemic-like disease at Raying Balo village under Gangte circle in Kurung Kumey district of the state.

According to the All Tam Socio-Economic Welfare Association (ATSEWA), 60 mithuns died of unknown diseases in the village during the last couple of days.

The Association has appealed the concerned authorities to dispatch a team of veterinary doctors to the area soon to contain the epidemic.

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