Ask the average wildlife enthusiast to list the world’s top havens of biodiversity and the chances are that the Annamite Range wouldn’t feature. In fact, the largely unexplored tropical forests that carpet this chain of mountains are a veritable treasure house of natural wonders. Stretching through Laos and Vietnam to north-east Cambodia, they are the sole stronghold for some of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular and super-rare species, from the aptly named Annamite striped rabbit to the semi-mystical saola.
Fauna & Flora and partners are working at strategic sites throughout the Annamite Mountains to prevent further fragmentation of these precious forests and protect the threatened wildlife that they harbour. From primates to pangolins, here are just a few of the myriad species that stand to benefit from these crucial conservation efforts.
Northern white-cheeked gibbon
The Annamites are blessed with a plethora of primates, but many of these species are perilously close to extinction. The northern white-cheeked gibbon belongs to a little-studied and gravely threatened group known collectively as crested gibbons. Like all gibbons, these critically endangered apes are amazing acrobats and sublime songsters. It is hard to know exactly how many northern white-cheeked gibbons are left, but it’s safe to say that the 90,000-hectare Pu Mat National Park – at the heart of the Annamites – is a global stronghold for this vanishingly rare primate. A close cousin, the northern yellow-cheeked gibbon, is also clinging on by its hooked fingertips. The largest and globally most significant population is in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park, another vital link in the Annamite chain.
Northern white-cheeked gibbons are sexually dimorphic, meaning that the female (left) is a different colour from the male (right). Credit: Terry Whittaker
This elusive and critically endangered deer was unknown to science until 1994. Also known as the large-antlered muntjac, it usually has bulkier headgear than the more common and far more widely distributed Chinese muntjac, which is native to Asia but has become a familiar sight as an invasive species in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Both species are characterised by a guttural alarm call reminiscent of a barking dog, but the giant muntjac has a considerably shorter tail and can attain much larger size. Mainly confined to remote forest refuges in Laos and Vietnam, the giant muntjac also occurs in Cambodia, but had not been recorded there until Fauna & Flora’s camera traps in Virachey National Park captured the first photographic evidence of its presence in 2021.
Camera-trap image of giant muntjac, the first photographic record of the species from Cambodia. Credit: Fauna & Flora
Evocatively referred to as the Asian unicorn – as much a nod to its elusiveness as to the illusion of a single horn created when it is viewed in profile – the saola is one of the world’s rarest and most threatened mammals. First discovered in 1992, it has repeatedly defied subsequent attempts to track it down in the wild. The only evidence of its continued survival comes from two camera-trap images captured 15 years apart – both snapped in the Annamites. It’s a race against time to protect the remaining saola population – which could be as low as double figures – from the deadly snares that hunters set to catch other, more common species.
First ever photograph of a wild saola, captured on camera trap in Pu Mat in 1998. Credit: EC SFNC
Named for the distinctive orange-yellow patch on its chest, this omnivorous opportunist has poor eyesight and hearing, but can sniff out a meal from distance. Its claws are strong enough to rip open a concrete-hard termite mound or excavate a bees’ nest in a standing tree. Sun bears are threatened by deforestation and, in particular, poaching for their body parts (gall bladder and paws) to supply the illegal wildlife trade. Forest snares have had a massive impact on sun bear populations throughout their range.
Native to Southeast Asia, the sun bear is the world’s smallest bear. Credit: Lillian/Adobe Stock
Despite outward appearances, Owston’s civet is neither cat nor mongoose. Largely confined to Laos and Vietnam, it shows a marked preference for the wetter montane forests of the Annamites. This sleek, elongated small carnivore is under threat from hunting and habitat loss throughout its limited range. In common with many other ground-dwelling small mammals in the Annamites, its population has been decimated by snaring on an industrial scale throughout the region.
Owston’s civet has benefited from captive-breeding initiatives, but its survival will ultimately depend on protection in the wild. Credit: Shelagh Rosenthal/Fauna & Flora
Pangolins are extraordinary creatures. Toothless wonders sporting a protective cloak of razor-sharp scales, they are perfectly adapted to a life that revolves around eating prodigious quantities of ants and termites while escaping predation, but powerless against poachers. Pangolin numbers are in freefall, particularly in Southeast Asia. The Annamites harbour some of the last populations of the critically endangered Sunda pangolin, one of four Asian species on the very brink of extinction.
Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal. Credit: Zaharil Dzulkafly
Annamite striped rabbit
Named after the mountain range where it was first found, the Annamite striped rabbit first came to light in 1996 when several dead specimens were seen in a market in Laos. Very little is known about this intriguing but endangered species, which is rarely encountered in the wild but has been captured on camera by Fauna & Flora close to the Laos-Vietnam border. The Annamite striped rabbit is one of only two species in its genus. Its closest surviving relative – from which it is thought to have diverged around eight million years ago – is the Sumatran striped rabbit. The two species share many other common characteristics, most notably that their futures are hanging by a thread.
The Annamite striped rabbit is officially listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Credit: Trinh Viet Cuong/Fauna & Flora
Like their African cousins, Asian elephants need room to roam. Habitat fragmentation is arguably the single greatest threat to their survival in Southeast Asia, not least because it increases their exposure to poaching and to human-elephant conflict. In that context, protection of the remaining forested landscapes in the Annamites and, in particular, the connectivity between them, will be critical to the long-term future of these wide-ranging giants.
The vast Pu Mat National Park, which harbours arguably the last viable Asian elephant population in Vietnam, may offer the species a crucial lifeline. Credit: Nick Everett/Getty Images
The sheer variety of mammals showcased above, from the familiar to the phantasmagoric, encapsulates the dazzling diversity of life in the Annamites, but these species are merely the cherry on the cake in a confectionery of delights that includes a range of reptiles, amphibians, birds, butterflies and other invertebrates that bewitch, baffle and bewilder in equal measure.
Butterflies congregating to drink at a muddy puddle in Virachey National Park. Credit: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora
Urgent action is needed to safeguard the future of this wonderful wilderness. The world cannot afford to lose any more of these carbon-rich forest landscapes and the diversity that depends on them.