It’s hard to conserve a species when you don’t know it exists. It’s even harder when that species is hiding in plain sight.

Until earlier this year, gazelles living in Israel and Palestine were considered part of a broad-ranging species called the mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella). That was before a paper published in March in PLoS One revealed the truth: the animals found in Israel and the Palestinian territories are a separate species from the similar gazelles that inhabit the Arabian Peninsula. The taxonomy and names of the two species haven’t quite been worked out, but the genetics and morphological differences separating them are now clear.

Gazelles, smaller relatives of the antelope, are a fairly wide-ranging group of species that can be found in Africa and much of Asia. Most of the dozen or so species and subspecies are fairly close to each other in appearance, so it’s easy to see why this new one evaded notice for so long. Close examination confirmed that the mountain gazelles in Israel had numerous genetic deviations from other gazelles, as well as some minor physiological differences.

News of the new species inspired researchers from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to count the gazelles in the region, something that hadn’t been necessary until they were differentiated from the gazelles on the Arabian Peninsula. That survey revealed a species in trouble. The gazelles have declined from an estimated population of 10,000 in the 1990s to about 2,000 today. As a result, the species will now likely be classified as endangered under Israeli law and on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Although the endangered status of these gazelles isn’t official yet, it has already made news around the world, particularly in Israel-based media. “I had not expected the global publicity,” says David Mallon of the IUCN’s Antelope Specialist Group. The group has made a request to the International Council for Zoological Nomenclature to clarify the species’ names, after which they will formally submit updated Red List entries for publication. “I will be seeing the Red List Unit staff next week at an IUCN meeting in Abu Dhabi and will discuss the nomenclatural issues with them while there and I hope to be able to submit by the end of this month.”

The gazelle’s rapid decline is being attributed to a long list of threats, including habitat loss and illegal hunting. Development has carved up its environment, resulting in several disparate populations being cut off from one another. Roads and cars pose a major hazard, as does an increase in feral dogs and other predators attracted by poor sanitation in many regions. The Nature and Parks Authority this week called for increased penalties for gazelle hunting beyond the current fine of about $2,500.

Last week the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel told Haaretz that the key to saving the animal will be in protecting its habitat, including open areas and migration corridors. With the world’s eyes suddenly fixed on the newly discovered, previously invisible species, such measures may prove critical to preventing this elusive gazelle from disappearing from sight altogether.

Photo by Sarah Murray. Used under Creative Commons license