Found but how long can Borneo's new creature survive?

The unknown mammal photographed deep in the Indonesian jungle is thought to be an unknown species of carnivore. But as Science Editor Steve Connor reports, in the race to classify the world's animals, humankind may be hindered by its own misdeeds
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The Independent Online

Man versus nature

All we know about the mysterious beast of Borneo is that it comes out at night, has a long, muscular tail, and looks a bit like a cross between a domestic cat and a wide-eyed lemur.

Naturalists have taken just two photographs of the creature when it sauntered across the infrared beams of a night-time camera trap - and that was back in 2003. Repeated attempts since then to track down the animal in the dense jungles of Borneo's Kayan Mentarang National Park have failed. Even the locals, who know the jungle inside-out, profess to have no knowledge of the creature's existence.

Zoologists believe that the mammal, which is slightly larger than a cat and has dark red fur, is a new species of carnivore. It is the first meat-eating animal to be found in these forests since 1895 when a specimen of the Borneo ferret-badger was captured.

"It is incredibly unusual to find a new species of large carnivore and it's proving rather elusive and shy," said Callum Rankine, head of the species programme at WWF-UK, the wildlife conservation charity.

Stephan Wulffraat, the WWF biologist leading the investigation into the new species, said that experts are still unsure whether it is an entirely new species belonging to its own group, or whether it related to existing species of martens or civet cats. "We showed the photos of the animal to locals who know the wildlife of the area, but nobody had ever seen this creature before. We also consulted several Bornean wildlife experts. Some thought it looked like a lemur but most were convinced it was a new species of carnivore," Mr Wulffraat said.

The animal's strong tail suggests it lives mainly in the trees, rather like lemurs. But these long-tailed primates exist only on the island of Madagascar, so the beast of Borneo is unlikely to a member of this animal group.

For the past two years, WWF naturalists have been trying to capture the animal alive using baited traps, but with little success. The creature has also escaped further attempts at photography. The WWF decided to release the two images yesterday as part of its campaign to highlight the plight of the many endangered animals living in the forested slopes of the Kayan Mentarang National Park of Kalimantan, -otherwise known as the "Heart of Borneo".

The charity said that the Indonesian Government, funded by the China Development Bank, is planning to log an area of the park covering 1.8 million hectares, an area about half the size of The Netherlands.

The plan is to replace the indigenous trees and vegetation, and the animals that rely on it, with commercial palm-oil plantations. This is despite the fact that palm-oil trees are not especially productive in areas 200 metres above sea level, and most of the Heart of Borneo is between 1,000 and 2,000 metres high.

Stuart Chapman, WWF's international co-ordinator of the programme to protect the Heart of Borneo, said that the discovery of the new species of carnivore demonstrates how little is known about the wildlife in this remote region. "This discovery highlights the urgent need to conserve the unique forests in the Heart of Borneo, as this creature, whatever it is, hasn't been seen since the pictures were taken and is therefore likely to occur in very low numbers," Mr Chapman said.

The story of the mysterious beast of Borneo highlights a well-established fact of conservation biology: we are losing new species faster than the rate at which we are finding them.

Scientists have identified and named about 1.8 million species of animals and plants but, amazingly, no central record or catalogue exists, although plans are afoot to establish one.

The actual number of species in the world is believed to be far greater, although nobody knows how many there are precisely. Estimates range from anywhere between 5 and 15 million, with some scientists suggesting there could be many more than this theoretical maximum.

Most of the animals in this total will of course be the smaller, easily-overlooked invertebrates such as insects, and especially beetles, the most diverse group of animals on the planet.

However, as the beast of Borneo has proved, many larger creatures may still be out there waiting to be discovered, providing they don't become extinct before they are found.

Conservation biologists, for instance, were amazed to hear of the discovery in 1992 of a species of wild ox in the Vu Quang Nature Reserve in Vietnam. That was followed two years later by the discovery of a giant muntjac deer in the same area of mountain forests.

It all goes to show that some regions of the Earth are still remote enough to be harbouring quite large animals that are still totally new to science.

Tropical forests are especially rich in species but they are also uniquely vulnerable because their valuable hardwood trees attract the interest of commercial loggers.

It is estimated for instance that tropical rainforests are being lost at a rate of between 1 and 2 per cent a year. This results in an estimated loss of between 0.25 and 0.5 per cent of their species through extinction, according to a 1998 study by Lord May of Oxford, a mathematical biologist and past president of the Royal Society.

Combining all the estimated losses of species resulting from deforestation, habitat loss and other forms of extinction, Lord May found that the present rate at which species are dying out could be about 10,000 times greater than the normal "background" rate of extinction.

If this is the case, then we are living through a period of mass extinction comparable to any of the other five examples of mass extinction we know about during the 3.5 billion-year history of life on Earth, Lord May said.

"This represents a sixth great wave of extenuation, fully comparable with the big five mass extinctions of the geological past, but different in that it results from the activities of a single other species, rather than from external environmental changes," he said. That "single other species" is, of course, man.

About 99 per cent of all the species that have ever lived on the planet are already extinct, which is part of the natural process of evolution. Yet more animals and plants are probably alive today than at any other single point in geological history.

The remote island habitats of Indonesia represent one of the last bastions of this rich biodiversity. But the story of the cat-like creature of Borneo also shows that this region is vulnerable to the modern pressures that have seen so many other species go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon.

As Lord May said: "We should be worried about reductions in biological diversity, at least until we understand its role in maintaining the planet's life-support systems. The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces."

Animals that came out of the unknown

More than 350 new species of animals have been discovered in Borneo in the past decade, including insects, crustaceans, fish and reptiles. Among them was a species of cockroach, believed to be the largest in the world. A World Wildlife Fund report released in April suggests thousands more undiscovered species may exist in Borneo alone.

* VIETNAM

The Giant Muntjac, a species of deer, was found in 1994. The 'giant bambi' creature, identifiable by its deep red coat, was discovered in the Pumat mountain jungle on the Vietnam-Laos border.Biologists believe unusually wet conditions in the region created a mini 'lost world'. The Annamite rabbit, striped with a red rump, shares the same habitat. They were related to the endangered Sumatran striped rabbit, but had been separated for at least eight million years, when parts of Indonesia were connected to South East Asia's mainland.

* AUSTRALIA

Marine biologists studying the dolphin family had not identified a new species in 30 years until July. The Snubfin dolphin, different in its colour and flipper measurements, lives in the waters between Queensland and Papua New Guinea. It bears little relation to the Australian Irawaddy dolphin, whose population has dwindled to less than 1,000. A group of 200 Snubfin are believed to live close to the port of Townsville.

* TANZANIA

The Highland Mangabey monkey emits a loud low-pitched bark, unlike any other animal cry heard in East Africa. It was only a matter of time before it was recorded this Spring in southern Tanzania. A species of tree-dwellers, the Mangabey has a thick, shaggy coat. A sweeping mohican crest makes it easily recognisable.

* UNITED STATES

Researchers near San Francisco found an unknown species of predatory jellyfish in 2003. While most jellyfish use a net of wispy tentacles to catch prey, the Granrojo, or Big Red, relies on four to eight short stumpy arms. Blood orange, Granrojo is one of few jellyfish that grows to three feet.

* THE AMAZON

A new species of the Titi family of apes was found in the rainforests of the central and southern Amazon three years ago. A Dutch biologist spotted the silvery primates. The female of the species - the size of a house cat - sports bright red sideburns, beard and chest.

Additional research by Kate Thomas

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