Friday 12 February marks the Chinese lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, it is the most important celebration in the Chinese calendar and millions of people all around the world will be celebrating. In Chinese tradition, each year is named after one of 12 animals, which feature in the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. This year is the Year of the Ox. In Chinese culture, the Ox is a valued animal. Because of its role in agriculture, positive characteristics, such as being hardworking and honest, are attributed to it. However, did you know that many of the Asian wild cattle species are actually endangered? In fact, of the 12 wild cattle species that exist, 9 are found only in Asia. All 9 of these species are threatened with extinction. These species are all threatened by human activities, including hunting and habitat loss. The Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group work tirelessly towards the conservation of these endangered cattle and their habitats.
Banteng image via Wildlife Alliance
Asian wild cattle species play an important role in their ecosystem. As well as serving as a food source for threatened predators such as tigers, leopards and dholes, their dung can support communities of fungi and insects which in turn can provide food for other threatened species like red junglefowl and green peafowl . Wild cattle species also play an important role as nutrient recyclers and seed dispersers. By grazing and wallowing, large, forest-dwelling Asian wild cattle species can significantly modify their environment and can be considered a keystone species. 4 of these Asian wild cattle species (banteng, gaur, water buffalo & yak) have economically important domesticated relatives – there are up to 180 million domestic water buffalo and 14 million domestic yak around the world. Wild populations, therefore, represent a potentially important source of genetic diversity for increasing resistance and adaptability in domestic stock.
Kouprey image via AWCSG
The Kouprey is one of the world’s most seriously threatened mammal species, in fact with no confirmed sightings since 1983 it’s possible that this species is already extinct. It’s likely that the Kouprey has been rare since it was first described to science in 1937. The population is not thought to have exceeded 2,000 individuals at any point during the 20th century. Little is known about the Kouprey, however they can be distinguished from closely related cattle species like banteng by their unusually large dewlaps and tails. Kouprey means ‘forest ox’ in the Khmer language, and the Kouprey was made the national animal of Cambodia in 2004. If still living, the Kouprey is likely restricted to Cambodia, however, they previously also lived in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The horns of Kouprey are desirable as a status symbol to poachers, and they are also hunted for bushmeat. Intense hunting and disturbance during the Cambodian Civil War is thought to have depleted the population.
Saola image via WWF
The Saola was discovered in May 1992 during a joint survey carried out by the Ministry of Forestry of Vietnam and WWF in north-central Vietnam. The team found a skull with unusual long, straight horns in a hunter's home and knew it was something extraordinary. The find proved to be the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years and one of the most exciting discoveries of the 20th century. It inhabits the forests of the Annamite Mountains in Laos and Vietnam, and currently none exist in captivity. Saola have only been observed in the wild by scientists a handful of times, in fact the Saola was last caught on camera in 2013. This elusiveness has led to the Saola being known as the ‘Asian Unicorn’. There are fewer than 250 Saola left in the world, and the total population possibly numbers only a few dozen. They are particularly threatened by the widespread use of illegal snare traps throughout their habitat.
Banteng image via Alexas Fotos
Banteng, also known as Tembadau, are a species of Southeast Asian wild cattle. Their characteristic white stockings and rumps make them easy to spot. Banteng are vital to their habitats and play a key role in circulating nutrients through ecosystems, dispersing seeds through their poo and maintaining food chains. They are also a critical food source for many carnivore species, including tigers and leopards. They live in small herds of up to 20 females with a single breeding bull. A female usually gives birth to a single calf with a pregnancy lasting just over a year. Banteng have been domesticated multiple times, and are the wild ancestor of Bali cattle. Banteng are protected by law, but a large illegal trade in their parts still exists. Banteng are threatened by habitat loss and hunting, and their numbers have declined by up to 95% since the 1960s. Fewer than 8,000 banteng are thought to be left in the wild. But there is some good news. Zoos, governments, conservationists and academics from around the world are joining forces to achieve greater impact through Action Indonesia, a global plan to protect three of Indonesia’s most impressive and threatened species which includes Banteng. Managed breeding programs in zoos in Indonesia, Europe, North America, and Asia are also collaborating to maintain a genetically diverse Banteng population in human care.
Anoa image via Chester Zoo
There is hope for all of these beautiful endangered cattle species, but only if we all do everything we can to help them survive. Our planet is beautifully diverse, and every single species serves a purpose on this Earth, and it is our duty as fellow citizens of the planet to protect those who cannot protect themselves. There is progress being made every day towards saving these precious species. In both 2014 and 2016, Chester Zoo welcomed incredibly rare lowland Anoa calves, showing the success that can be had from conservational breeding programmes. If you want to help save these endangered cattle species from extinction, you can support the work of AWCSG directly through donating here.