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July 06, 2010

Wildlife surveys in the newly extended core area of Seima Protection Forest started earlier this year and they have been yielding exciting results. One of the most interesting of these has been an unusual encounter with a large herd of one of SPF's most endangered species, Banteng.

Banteng, one of Cambodia's three species of wild cattle, once occurred from southern China across mainland Southeast Asia, Peninsular Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. However, the species now persists only in greatly reduced and isolated populations, many of which are in decline. Banteng have been heavily hunted over the last few decades, for meat, trophies and medicinal use, and these threats are exacerbated by rapid habitat loss. The species is listed by IUCN as Endangered and, although the exact number is not known, it is probable that there are less than 8 000 individuals remaining in the wild.

In his accounts of expeditions to Northern Cambodia during the 1950's, biologist Charles Wharton likens the landscape to the game lands of Africa as he describes huge herds of wild cattle, including Banteng, roaming the savannah forest. This is sometimes difficult to imagine today as Cambodia's wild cattle have been subjected to many of the same pressures affecting the species elsewhere in the region. Despite this there are parts of the country, in particular the open forests in the northern and eastern provinces, which still retain populations of wild cattle.

Wild cattle such as Banteng play a crucial role in many ecological processes, such as large seed dispersal and the maintenance of habitat structures. In addition to playing the part of "ecological architects" Banteng constitute a critical food source for many carnivore species, such as Tiger, Leopard and Dhole. The probable extinction of the Kouprey, another of Cambodia's wild cattle species which has not been seen since the 80's, further highlights the urgency of conservation actions focusing on Banteng populations.

Mondulkiri province in Eastern Cambodia has become one of the last strongholds of Banteng in Indochina, and the Seima Protection Forest is recognised as a globally important site for the conservation of this species. Banteng is one of a number priority species in SPF which are monitored annually using line transect surveys. Line transects are essentially fixed survey routes which are walked repeatedly by skilled field staff who record observations of target species. These data are used to estimate the total number of animals present in the core area. Over time managers can assess whether populations are increasing, decreasing or remaining stable, and use this information to guide and evaluate management actions.

The similarity in appearance of Banteng to many breeds of domestic cattle belies its shy nature and these animals are rarely seen, even by field staff who spend much of their time in the forest. In the last round of surveys Banteng were observed on just 11 occasions, despite the fact that the biological monitoring team walked just under 1500km on transects. Such encounters that do occur often only afford the briefest glimpse of an animal before it disappears into the dense cover that herds like to keep close to. However, earlier this season one of the team leaders, Sot Vandouen, managed to capture video footage of the elusive Banteng during a transect survey. This was an area which had not previously been surveyed and the observation was all the more exciting as he counted a total of 21 animals, which is the highest number of individuals recorded in any Banteng encounter in SPF.

Not only does this record provide further confirmation of the presence of healthy breeding herds but it also makes it a little easier to imagine these forests being restored to their former glory, as described by Wharton half a century ago.

The biological monitoring work in SPF is made possible through support from Eleanor Briggs, Ellyssa Kellerman and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Posted in: Seima Forest