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UMass Amherst wildlife researcher photographs rare Sumatran rabbit

AMHERST, Mass. Using camera traps, wildlife researchers including doctoral candidate Jennifer McCarthy and environmental conservation professor Todd Fuller of the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently captured photographs of one of the rarest animals on earth, the Sumatran striped rabbit. They say it may now be found only in two remote national parks on the Indonesian island.

Their pictures and other observations are reported in the current issue of Oryx, The International Journal of Conservation. The rare rabbit was first photographed in Kerinci Seblat National Park in 1998 and has rarely been seen since.

"Whether the rabbit does occur undetected in other parks is not certain, but the importance of protecting these two known strongholds of the species is critical," say McCarthy and colleagues. "As the human population of Sumatra rises, both parks are increasingly threatened by encroachment of villages and development of roads and infrastructure. It is important to focus conservation efforts in these areas to prevent a loss of what could be the final two populations of Sumatran striped rabbits."

Sumatra's Bukit Barisan Mountains, where the rabbits were captured on film, form the rugged backbone of the sixth largest island in the world. Since 2008, McCarthy and Fuller have been conducting an ecological study of the clouded leopard, Asiatic golden cat, marbled cat and leopard cats in Indonesia's Bukit Barisan Seletan National Park.

McCarthy says, "As part of my dissertation research on the four felids, or cats, we also happened to get pictures of this very rare rabbit. There had been a few camera-trap photos seen of it before, but very, very rarely. We wanted to take these observations a step further, so we worked with colleagues from the University of Delaware and the Wildlife Conservation Society's Indonesia Program to contact every researcher we knew throughout Sumatra who was doing camera-trap research, probably 20 or 30 people. This gave us good coverage of the island."

"We asked them about sightings of the Sumatran striped rabbit and report the results in our paper." Overall, the conservation biologist adds, "The biggest news is that we only received recent sighting information from these two parks. For the first time, we can pinpoint that these two areas may be the only ones remaining where this species occurs. We can't say they don't occur elsewhere, but we are saying it's important to preserve those areas in order to save the species."

Habitats critical to many forms of wildlife in the parks face constant pressure from nearby coffee and palm oil plantations and from those who want logging roads built, she adds. Roads would not only destroy habitat but would allow humans, including poachers, access into relatively wild and remote places. In Sumatra between 2000 and 2009, more than 7.6 million acres (3.1 million hectares) of forest were lost to such encroachment, McCarthy says.

Much of her work was done at fairly high altitudes, in dense rainforest and rugged terrain, along volcanic ridges up to 3,900 feet (1,200 meters) high, where human encroachment is low, McCarthy says. The area has a relatively high density of wildlife, including tigers, so the investigators never travel alone and always have a park ranger with them. After walking miles to visit their cameras and snares, they roll out their sleeping bags in local villages as guests of families with no electricity, running water or modern plumbing.

McCarthy says, "It's such a beautiful place. I hope we are able to increase conservation initiatives. At this point we really need to increase the involvement of local people in order to save these areas. There is some appreciation of the value of wildlife, especially for the tiger. But the root of the problem, the loss of habitat, hasn't really slowed down. We feel our presence and the fact that our research supports a park ranger has helped to make a difference."

Contact: Janet Lathrop
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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