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Camera Captures Image of Mysterious Creature in Borneo

civet, borneo, mammal, lemur


Mammals new to science have been emerging in Southeast Asia of late: three new species of deer found in the forests of Vietnam in the 1990s; a long-whiskered rat representing a previously unknown family of mammals discovered at a hunter's market in Laos and revealed in May; and now a cat-size creature with orange fur and a long, strong tail has been photographed in Indonesia. A camera trap set in the mountains of Kayan Mentarang National Park in Borneo snapped two images of the mysterious creature as it trundled through the rain forest in 2003.

"We showed the photos of the animal to locals who know the wildlife of the area, but nobody had ever seen this creature before," says Stephan Wulffraat, a biologist working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to identify and study the creature. "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."

Other experts seem to think that it is either a new species of viverrid--catlike tropical mammals with a pointed muzzle like that of a mongoose--or simply a variation on one of the known species, such as a masked palm civet, Paguma larvata. "The animal's body shape is right for Paguma and the color is a color that they can have," explains Louise Emmons, a mammal researcher at the Smithsonian Institution. "The tail tip is pale, but maybe that is within the variation of the species."

"Honestly, it is hard to tell," notes Juan Carlos Morales, a mammalogist at Columbia University. "It looks different from other viverrids I've seen from Indonesia, but still like a civet."

According to the WWF, the question may never be adequately answered if recently announced plans to create the world's largest palm oil plantation in the unidentified mammal's backyard come to fruition. The plantation would eat up some of the park as part of its nearly 7,000 square miles. "We are working with the government of Indonesia to look at alternatives in the lowlands which, in fact, are much more suitable for growing palm than the highlands," says Ginette Hemley, vice president for species conservation at WWF in the U.S. "For us as conservationists these photos underscore the urgency of protecting what is some of the last remaining untouched forest in Southeast Asia, both lowland and upland."

The WWF notes that this beast could be the first new carnivore found in Borneo in more than 100 years. Until the creature is captured and studied, however, no one can say anything with certainty. "We want to get an agreement to protect the area and then undertake the analysis," Hemley adds.

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