Saola, Lao PDR/Vietnam

Project title

Saving the Saola and Other Endangered Animals of the Annamite Mountains

Target species for conservation

Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis)

Project news & updates

Saola

Described in 1993 from central Vietnam, the saola was one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries the 20th century. Among wildlife, the only thing comparable was the discovery of the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) of central Africa. Okapi and saola are alike in many ways: highly distinctive-looking, solitary large ungulates dwelling in deep tropical forest, coming to the notice of the outside world only very late. But saola was discovered nearly a century after okapi, and so was an even more stunning discovery. Saola is also considerably more threatened than okapi. Saola is endemic to the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam. Since its discovery, it has declined to a status of Critically Endangered (2010 IUCN Red List), due mainly to intense hunting in its range. Because of saola’s elusiveness and the lack of investment in its conservation, precise population estimates of any confidence are not yet possible; the best we can say is that probably between 10 and 400 remain. Saola is now one of the most endangered mammals in Asia, and thus the world, perhaps akin only to the two Southeast Asian rhinoceroses.

Saola (Photo: William Robichaud)

Saola (Photo: William Robichaud)

In fact, it is hard to think of another animal in the world that shares saola’s combination of three things:

  1. Degree of endangerment (Critically Endangered), and there is none in captivity anywhere in the world – the species has proven to be very fragile in captivity.
  2. Genetic distinctiveness (it is the only species in its genus, and probably merits its own tribe or even subfamily within the Bovidae; there are very few comparable cases where an entire genus, let alone tribe or subfamily, is red-listed as Critically Endangered);
  3. Paucity of conservation attention (Saola is a far more threatened than other large mammals in Asia with greater attention and funding, e.g. Tiger (Panthera tigris), Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and orang-utans (Pongo spp.).

Saola conservation

There are two compelling reasons to support saola conservation:

1. Opportunity: Most endangered terrestrial vertebrates in Southeast Asia are threatened primarily by their deliberately sought off-take for the wildlife trade, either for bushmeat or traditional East Asian medicine (e.g., turtles, snakes, pangolins, rhinos, primates, bears, large cats) or, often a combination of both, as ‘tonics’. Ironically, saola is one of very few large animals in the region without a significant price on its head. The Chinese never knew saola, and so it does appear in their traditional pharmacopeia. This is a tremendous hope and opportunity for the animal’s conservation. Unlike, for example, rhinoceroses, determined poachers are not racing conservationists to the last saola. However, the methods used by many poachers for the animals they do seek are not precisely targeted and are incidentally driving saola to extinction.

Village surrounded by saola habitat (Photo: William Robichaud)

Village surrounded by saola habitat (Photo: William Robichaud)

2. The Annamite Mountains: The saola’s home is one of the most remarkable and important ecosystems in the world. Since the saola’s own discovery there, at least one new species of deer (Muntjacs muntiacus), a rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), several birds and a mammalian family thought to be extinct for millions of years (Diatomyidae) have been found in the Annamites. This is in addition to the plethora of highly distinctive mammals already known and confined to the area (or nearly so), such as the three species of doucs Pygathrix, the Fran├žois’s Leaf Monkey species-complex (Trachypithecus francoisi), two species of white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys and Nomascus siki), and a remarkable civet with no close relatives anywhere in the world, Owston’s Civet (Chrotogale owstoni). The Annamites are also notably rich in endemism of higher plants, birds and fish. With successful conservation of saola, as a flagship species, will come conservation of the Annamites, and the thousands of other species there.

In sum, for individuals or institutions looking to make a significant, incremental contribution to conservation of the earth’s biodiversity, among species it is hard to imagine a more potent investment than saola.

Saola snares (Photo: William Robichaud)

Saola snares (Photo: William Robichaud)

Project objectives

To-date, saola conservation has consisted mainly of some well-meant but uncoordinated, short-term, and weakly-funded efforts. This has not reversed the species’ decline, and a change of course is required to avert its extinction.

The first meeting of the IUCN/SSC Saola Working Group, in Vientiane, Laos in August 2009, identified 5 priorities for saola conservation.

  • Protection: immediately improved protection at key sites for saola, particularly collection of snares.
  • Research: the foremost priority is development of a method to efficiently and reliably detect saola in the field (there is no known visual way of distinguishing saola signs, such as prints and faeces, from various other ungulates; it is almost impossible to see, and even camera-trapping demands massive resources to stand a reasonable chance of finding it).
  • Awareness-raising: priority contacts are international donors, conservation NGOs, local residents in the saola’s range, and range government partners.
  • Mentoring:inspiring and training young national (Laos and Vietnam) saola conservationists.
  • Fund-raising: resources are needed to implement the other four priorities.

The EAZA IUCN/SSC Southeast Asia Campaign feds directly to the priorities of awareness-raising and fund-raising, the funds will directly support protection and research.