The world's largest population of banteng, a type of cattle native to Southeast Asia, is at risk from hunters and agricultural concessions granted inside protected areas of Cambodia, a conservation group said Monday.
Numbers of banteng, graceful wild cattle that once roamed in vast herds, in Cambodia have plummeted by 90 percent since the 1960s and the species is listed as globally endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which monitors wildlife populations.
A three-year study by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Cambodian government showed that between 2,700 and 5,700 banteng have survived on the plains of northeastern Cambodia from a global population of 5,900 to 11,000. Areas of Thailand and Indonesia shelter only several hundred.
Along with poaching for meat and horn trophies, the wild cattle is losing its habitat to land concessions granted by the government to foreign and local investors and large-scale infrastructure projects, the WWF said.
"It essentially means Cambodia's protected areas, including those that contain globally important species, are not as protected by law as people once thought," the statement said.
The plains of northern and northeastern Cambodia, which include some of the region's largest remaining lowland forests, were once regarded as an Eden for wildlife.
But Cambodia's wildlife has been battered in recent decades.
Soldiers killed thousands of animals during 20 years of war and civil conflict and in more recent times massive deforestation, abetted by corruption, and a thriving illegal wildlife trade with China and Vietnam have hastened the decline. Hunting and encroachment into reserves continues.
Cambodia's national animal, the kouprey, was last seen in 1988 and the wild ox is generally believed to be extinct. Elephants, another species central to Cambodian culture, are believed to number no more than 300 in the wild, while the tiger population has been decimated.
The WWF, working on a major project to rehabilitate the northeastern plains, says that banteng, along with other prey like wild pig and barking deer, must be maintained for tigers to survive. The plains are regarded as one of the best places in Asia to revitalize tiger populations.
"For tigers and prey species _ including a globally endangered banteng population _ to recover within the landscape, stronger area management and a commitment to conservation from high levels of the Cambodian government are essential," the WWF said.