DEEP IN the Indonesian jungle, something stirs. But is it a cat, a dog, a marten, a rare fox, or possibly the first new carnivore to be found in South East Asia for more than 70 years?
The only evidence that exists are photographs taken by an automatically triggered camera on a jungle trail in Indonesia in 2003. Infuriatingly, a large leaf obscured the creature’s face as the shutter went off.
Despite this, researchers from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) announced the discovery last week claiming it as the first new carnivore to be found in the region since the Tonkin otter-civet emerged in Vietnam in 1930.
The animal was photographed in Kayan Mentarang National Park in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, one of the world’s biggest islands, which is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. WWF calls the mountainous region the "Heart of Borneo"; a vast tract of rainforest that it believes should be made a protected area.
Stephen Wulffraat, discoverer of the so far unnamed animal, said: "We showed the photos to locals who know the wildlife of the area, but nobody had ever seen this creature before. 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."
Discoveries of new mammals are not an everyday occurrence. While there are millions of unnamed insects, mammal species are far less numerous and most were discovered and described a century or more ago.
But in recent years, a surprising number have appeared: a monkey in Africa, a new rodent in Laos, and several deer species in Vietnam. Carnivores are rarer still, so if the Borneo find can be confirmed it will be an exciting day for zoologists.
The pictures show an enigmatic, red-furred creature with tiny ears and distinctive markings. The leaf that obscures its face makes it impossible to say if it has a pointed snout like a dog or fox, or a flat face like a cat. A second photo, from behind, shows it to have a long, bushy tail rather like a fox, and large hind legs. It is slightly larger than a domestic cat.
The creature is the first mammal to be discovered on the island since the Borneo ferret-badger in 1895.
The creature may be not only newly discovered, but endangered. The Indonesian Government announced this year that an area of its forest home half the size of the Netherlands, 1.8 million hectares, will be cleared for palm-oil plantations financed by the China Development Bank.
Stuart Chapman, of WWF Indonesia, said: "This discovery highlights the urgent need to conserve the unique forests in the Heart of Borneo, as this creature – whatever it is – hasn’t been seen since the pictures were taken and is therefore likely to occur in very low numbers.
"We have to wonder what other secrets these remote forests hold. And if this forest isn’t protected, this creature may remain a mystery for ever."