A large mammal, discovered in 1992 by a joint team from Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry and WWF surveying the forests of Vu Quang, near Vietnam's border with Laos, considered as one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century, is in great danger, because is threatened with extinction.
Two decades after the sensational discovery of this new ungulate species, called the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), this rare animal remains as mysterious and elusive as ever. The Saola Working Group (SWG) of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) warn that the species is sliding towards extinction because of intensive hunting pressure and poor reserve management.
Saola is a cousin of cattle, but resembles more like an antelope in appearance. The difficulty in detecting the animal has prevented scientists from making a precise population estimate. “If things are good, there may be a couple of hundred Saola out there,” says William Robichaud, Coordinator of the IUCN Saola Working Group. “If things are bad, the population could now be down in the tens,”as quoted in a release from IUCN.
Though two decades have passed the discovery, even now, very little is known about the Saola’s ecology and behaviour. In 2010, villagers in the central Laos province of Bolikhamxay had captured a Saola, but the animal died several days later. Prior to that, the last confirmed record of a Saola in the wild was in 1999 from camera-trap photos in Bolikhamxay.
Efforts to save the Saola have reached a greater level of urgency since another of Vietnam's iconic species, the Vietnamese Javan Rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus), was confirmed as extinct in 2011 , after the battle to save its last member fell victim in the hands of poachers.
The IUCN press release issued last month points out that development is fast encroaching on the Saola’s forest habitat, and the greatest threat to the species is from illegal hunting. Hunters set wire snares to catch other animals, such as Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor), Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi) and civets, but Saola too are caught in those wires. There is a lucrative wildlife trade driven by traditional medicine demand in China, and by demand from restaurant and food markets in Vietnam and Laos.
After the discovery of the Saola, Vietnam and Laos have established a network of protected areas in the animal’s core range and some reserves are pursuing innovative approaches to tackle rampant poaching.
In the Saola Nature Reserve in Vietnam’s Thua Thien Hue Province, a new approach to forest guard co-management is delivering positive results. Since February 2011, the team of forest guards patrolling the reserve have removed more than 12,500 snares and close to 200 illegal hunting and logging camps.
“Saola are extremely secretive and very seldom seen,” says Nick Cox, Manager of WWF-Greater Mekong’s Species Programme. “While they inhabit a very restricted range, there is still no reported sighting of a Saola in the wild by a scientist, and the handful of Saola that have been taken into captivity have not survived.”
The Saola is an icon for biodiversity in the Annamite mountain range that runs along the border of Vietnam and Laos. This biodiversity hotspot boasts an incredible diversity of rare species, with many found nowhere else on the planet. In addition to the discovery of the Saola, two new species of deer, the Large-antlered Muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) and the Truong Son Muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis), were uncovered in the Annamite’s rugged, evergreen forests in 1994, and 1997, respectively.
“If hunting levels can be significantly reduced, we are optimistic about the species' prospects,” says Chris Hallam, WCS-Laos’ Conservation Planning Advisor. “This will require funds for more patrol boots on the ground in Saola areas, developing positive incentives for its conservation, and ultimately reducing consumer demand for wildlife meat and products. The Saola has made it to its twentieth anniversary, but it won’t have many more anniversaries unless urgent action is taken.”
It is hoped that issues involving species survival and conservation will be discussed at the the forthcoming IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju, Republic of Korea, from 6 to 15 September 2012, and measures taken to save species like Saola which are so important from scientific as well as conservation angles.
Losing Saola to forces of extinction due to poaching and development will be a much bigger loss of the 21st century, as compared to the importance of its discovery in the 20th century, given the seriousness the international community gives to protection of such important rare species !