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Secret Species

Scientists team up to discover and preserve tropical wildlife

May 8, 2006

In the early 1990s, as government researchers hiked through the forests of Vietnam, they spotted something they had never seen before: the top half of a skull with long, curved horns. The bones resembled a hybrid of a half-goat-half-antelope. Interviews with local residents who had collected the skull led researchers to conclude that it was from an animal called the saola.

Researchers who spotted the skull had never seen a saola alive in the wild, and no one today is sure how many exist. The saola is very large-85 kilograms (200 pounds). So how could a mammal this big go undiscovered by scientists for so long in a country smaller than California and packed with 85 million people?

Until the early 1990s, only people living in Vietnam and Laos knew of the saola's existence. That's because Vietnam had been isolated from much of the world since the mid-1940s due to years of conflicts, including the American war in Vietnam. Scientists from countries like the U.S. were blocked from studying there. Beginning in the early 1990s, Western scientists were able to study in this biologically diverse region.

TAKING STOCK OF SPECIES
Since 1997, scientists from the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York have worked alongside Vietnamese and other international researchers to catalogue newly discovered plants and animals. Their goal is to create awareness of the urgent need to conserve Vietnam's wildlife and their habitats.

"There are species in Vietnam that are not found anywhere else in the world," says Martha M. Hurley, a scientist working on the CBC's Vietnam project.

Since beginning their work, the CBC scientists and their collaborators have found a small zoo's worth of animals. They have found one genus and three species of mammals and many new amphibians, reptiles, and insects.

One of the species unique to Vietnam is the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. These primates have a bluish face and large clownlike lips. Unfortunately, these monkeys are critically endangered by hunting and forest loss.

SECLUDED COUNTRYSIDE
What about Vietnam makes its wildlife unique? It has much to do with its mountainous geography and tropical climate. Mountains provide stable, humid habitats and shelter areas from outside influences. Plants and animals in these uplands can evolve and remain relatively undisturbed by changes in rainfall or temperature. The  mountains and forests make it hard for scientists to find these rare species. When they find an area with such plants and animals, the researchers work with the Vietnamese government to protect the wildlife within it. They also work with scientists there to create new ways to conserve the areas.

Hurley says it is important to protect these animals because if they die out in Vietnam, they are lost from the planet forever.

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