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After two decades Saola still remains a mystery
A recent study by the Saola Working Group (SWG) of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has revealed that 20years after the sensational discovery of a new ungulate species called the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), the rare animal still remains mysterious and elusive as ever. The implication is that the species is sliding towards extinction because of intensive hunting pressure and poor reserve management.
The Saola, a cousin of cattle but resembling an antelope in appearance was 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. The team found a skull with unusual long, straight horns in a hunter's home and knew it was something extraordinary. The discovery made the Saola the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years, and one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.
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. 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 extinct in 2011 after the battle to save the last individual was lost to poachers.
“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.”
Two decades after, little is still known about the Saola’s ecology or behaviour. In 2010, villagers in the central Laos province of Bolikhamxay 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.
“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.”
While development is encroaching on the Saola’s forest habitat, the greatest threat comes from illegal hunting. Saola are caught in wire snares set by hunters to catch other animals, such as Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor), Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi) and civets, which are largely destined for the lucrative wildlife trade driven by traditional medicine demand in China and restaurant and food markets in Vietnam and Laos. Since 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.
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