The kha-nyou: Living fossil becomes a favourite snack
September 19, 2016
The kha-nyou, also known as the Laotian rock rat, was only discovered by scientists in 2015.
Back in 2005, Robert Timmins, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, discovered something he had never seen before in a food market in Laos. A strange creature that looked half-rat and half-squirrel, it turned out to be a species undiscovered by science but regularly eaten by locals.
So began the story of the kha-nyou (laonastes aenigmamum), as the species is known in Laos. So what you may think, what is one more rodent in the world? But the kha-nyou is a so-called ‘lazarus’ species and is quite unlike any other rodent that is around today; it is so distinct that it makes the E.D.G.E list of species, coming in at number 15.
As Timmins told New Scientist at the time of discovery, new rodents are discovered every other year, but new mammal families are a rare thing indeed. Prior to this critter’s discovery in 2005, the last mammal family was found in 1974 when the bumblebee bat popped up on scientists’ radars.
Despite being found only in limestone karst areas of central Indochina, with the highest populations believed to be in Khammouan Province in Laos, the species is considered Least Concern by the IUCN. Yes, the kha-nyou’s habitat is being chipped away to feed cement manufacturing plants and demand for firewood, and yes it is hunted, perhaps in large enough quantities to threaten it locally in some areas, but overall the species is not considered to be seriously threatened at the moment.
That it is still eaten there is no doubt. Although its meat isn’t said to be particularly fine, local people still live off of the kha-nyou. And if rates of hunting continue or were to increase it could push the species ever closer to extinction.
Species such as the kha-nyou are particularly good examples of many of the problems of modern conservation. It’s the last remnants of its kind, a true living fossil. And yet apart from mild interest and an eye-brow raising murmur of “that’s weird”, it’s unlikely that the species will have people signing over their weekly beer money to save it.
As the folks over at E.D.G.E recognise, the kha-nyou as a species represents an important piece of biological heritage which even the wider conservation world appears to have forgotten. To conserve it may not seem that important if it’s put up against the wolf, the giant panda or the tiger. But the alternative means allowing a species that managed to survive against the odds to slip into extinction on our watch and as a result of our inaction.
To find out about more underreported and unknown species on the verge of extinction be sure to check out the E.D.G.E list of species here.