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(CNN) - A small creature similar to a rabbit-sized deer has been photographed for the first time in three decades in southern Vietnam, delighting conservationists who feared the species had become extinct.
The silver loin chevrotain, also called the Vietnamese deer, was last registered more than 25 years ago when a team of Vietnamese and Russian researchers obtained a dead chevrotain from a hunter.
"For a long time, this species apparently had only existed as part of our imagination," said Vietnamese biologist An Nguyen, an associate conservation scientist at Global Wildlife Conservation, a non-governmental organization, and a PhD student at the Leibniz Institute to Zoo and Wildlife Research.
"Discovering that, in fact, it is still out there, is the first step to ensure that we do not lose it again, and now we are moving quickly to discover the best way to protect it," he said in a statement.
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Scientists had thought that the little creature, which had been among a list of the 25 “most wanted” lost species compiled by Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), had been the victim of habitat loss and intensive hunting for illegal trade in wild life. Wire traps are widely used in the region.
Details of the rediscovery were published Monday in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
After interviewing villagers and rangers near the coastal city of Nha Trang, the team of scientists set camera traps for five months in areas where locals said they could have seen the animal.
This resulted in 275 photos of the mammal. Then, the team installed another 29 cameras in the same area, this time recording 1,881 photographs of the chevrotain for five months.
Despite their nickname, the chevrotains are neither mice nor deer, but the ungulates or mammals with the smallest hooves in the world, according to GWC. They are shy and lonely, seem to walk on the tips of their helmets and have two small fangs. Usually, they weigh less than 5 kilos.
The species was first described by scientists in 1910, when four specimens were collected around Nha Trang. There were no scientifically verified records again until 1990, when a single animal confiscated a local hunter in central Vietnam, further north.
"Then nothing. So little known that the species was a big question mark, ”said Andrew Tilker, Asian Species Officer at the GWC.
One of the biggest challenges was deciding where to start the search.
"We had these two historical locations separated by quite a distance, one in the southern part of Vietnam and the other much further north," Tilker said.
"But we knew that many people had camera traps in the wet evergreen forests and had not seen it, so we thought we should look at the dry forest habitat that is really different and where many people have not looked."
The study's findings have implications for other species that are lost to science, Tilker said.
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“For the scientific world, this was a lost species, but the local people knew it. It was only through the use of local ecological knowledge that we succeeded. That can be replicated for other species in other parts of the world, ”he said.
Tilker also warned that just because this species was found relatively easily does not mean that it is not under threat.
"This could represent the last population or one of a handful of populations, in which case we must take immediate steps to establish conservation measures to ensure their survival."