Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Forgotten species: the wild jungle cattle called banteng

The word "cattle," for most of us, is the antithesis of exotic; it's familiar like a family member one's happy enough to ignore, but doesn't really mind having around. Think for a moment of the names: cattle, cow, bovine...likely they make many of us think more of the animals' byproducts than the creatures themselves—i.e. milk, butter, ice cream or steak—as if they were an automated food factory and not living beings. But if we expand our minds a bit further, "cattle" may bring up thoughts of cowboys, Texas, herds pounding the dust, or merely grazing dully in the pasture. But none of these titles, no matter how far we pursue them, conjure up images of steamy tropical rainforest or gravely imperiled species. A cow may be beautiful in its own domesticated sort-of-way, but there is nothing wild in it, nothing enchanting. However like most generalizations, this idea of cattle falls to pieces when one encounters, whether in literature or life, the banteng.

The banteng is everything domestic cattle are not: rainforest-dwelling, wild, elusive, obscure, almost mystical. Yet for all that, the banteng are cattle. They just happen to be cattle of the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, sharing their dark verdured habitat with tigers, elephants, and rhinos. Although co-existing with such exotic animals, the banteng, in appearance, could almost be mistaken for domestic cattle; they are similar in both size and general impression, but a bit different in color and pattering: males sport a black coat with white stockings and rump, while females are tan to dark brown with similar stockings and rump.

"Banteng are one of the few remaining species of totally wild bovids in the world," Penny Gardner, who is studying banteng in Borneo, says. "The behavior of the banteng is unique because they spend the majority of their time in dense remote forest, emerging at night and early morning to forage on grasses growing at the edge of the forest or in glades. They are incredibly elusive and rarely sighted."

A PhD student at Cardiff University, Penny Gardner is currently tracking banteng in two protected areas—Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Malua BioBank—in the Malaysian state of Sabah through the Danau Girang Field Center and Sabah Wildlife Department. Although wild banteng are found in several countries, including Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, Borneo's banteng are considered by many to be a distinct subspecies.

"They are the last large mammal of Borneo to be researched and very few people worldwide have heard of them. The threat of extinction is imminent; they are extinct from Brunei and Sarawak (Malaysia Borneo), and only occasional sightings of tracks are reported in Kalimantan (Indonesia Borneo). Sabah is the last stronghold, however the remaining forest habitat is fragmented and populations are isolated," she says. While the banteng is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, Gardner says that listing comes from a "crude population estimate conducted in the 1980s." Today, the species may be on the verge of disappearing.

"In reality, [the banteng] is the second most endangered large mammal in Borneo, after the Sumatran Rhino," explains Gardner. The species, across its range, is being pummeled by deforestation and poaching. Forests across Southeast Asia are being converted into palm oil, rubber, paper and pulp plantations at record rates. Although a protected species in all of its range states, the banteng is still illegally hunted with law enforcement lacking due to a dearth of funds. Given low populations and fragmentation of habitat, Gardner says the banteng is also facing "a reduction of gene flow between populations, (probable) inbreeding, hybridization with domestic cattle and disease transmission with domestic livestock." With the number of threats extinction may appear inevitable, but the situation is not yet hopeless.

Employing camera traps, Gardner has secured photos of a healthy herd in Malua BioBank, which was granted protection in 2008 largely due to its substantial population of orangutans. Given the banteng's well-known elusive personality, Gardner has depended heavily on camera traps to document the species. Camera traps, which take photos remotely of wildlife when an animal "trips" an infrared sensor, have become incredibly important to recent studies of rare tropical animals. Researchers are able to sift an incredible amount of information from photos.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Forgotten species: the wild jungle cattle called banteng

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