Scientists believe they have found a wholly new species of mammal deep in the heart of one of the richest, least studied and most endangered wildlife areas on earth.
The discovery of an apparently new kind of fox in the dense forests of central Borneo is an extremely rare event. Only a handful of new mammals have been discovered in the whole world over the past 70 years. It comes as hopes are rising that the forests – which are expected to be cut down within the next 15 years – may be saved at the last minute. The Indonesian government has recently halted logging in an important national park and has begun preparations with the governments of Malaysia and Brunei about establishing a 220,000 kmsq conservation area.
Borneo – the world’s third largest island – has possibly the most diverse wildlife on the globe. By a conservative estimate, it is home to 15,000 species of plant; one 52 hectare plot alone has 1,175 different kinds of tree – a world record. Six thousand of them are found nowhere else, as are about 160 of its fish species, 30 of its birds and 25 of its mammals.
Last week WWF reported that 361 entirely new species – 260 insects, 50 plants, 30 freshwater fish, seven frogs, six lizards, five crabs, two snakes and a toad – have been discovered over the past decade, a rate of three a month. But the fox, which has come to light only after the report was written, is a far bigger find. Discoveries of mammals are extremely rare. Six were found in the 1990s in remote forests in Vietnam – a rhino, a rabbit, three deer and a primate – but they were the first since the discovery of the kouprey in the area in 1937.
But all of these are herbivores, making the finding of a carnivorous fox even more extraordinary. The animal – which was caught on an automatic infra-red camera, set up in the forest of the Kayam Menterong National Park – is foxy red all over, with no white markings, and a bushy tail. It has slightly extended back legs, suggesting that it may spend part of its time up trees.
Dr Stuart Chapman, of WWF Indonesia, says that the two pictures taken by the automatic camera had been shown to scientists and the Jakarta Natural History Museum, who believed it was a new species. Local hunters had also failed to recognise it. But no one can be certain until the finding is officially published, and possibly until an expedition is mounted to search for it.
Conservationists are increasingly anxious about the fate of Borneo, described by Charles Darwin as “one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself”. Illegal logging is devastating its forests; the World Bank predicts that all of them, outside protected areas, will have been cut down by 2020.
But three weeks ago the Indonesian government stopped logging in the key Betung Kerihun National Park, by closing a nearby border crossing which had been used to take the timber into Sarawak, the Malaysian part of Borneo. And it has so far stuck to its decision despite intense pressure from logging interests. Geoffrey Lean, Jan McGirk, UK Independent