ADELAIDE: Twenty years after the official recognition of the horned mammal saola as a new species, conservationists are still in the dark about just how many of the secretive animals are still in existence in the highly biodiverse Annamite mountain forests bordering Vietnam and Laos.
Poor land management and intensive hunting pressure might have driven the species to the brink of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Saola Working Group.
“If things are good, there may be a couple of hundred saola out there,” said William Robichaud, coordinator of the working group. “If things are bad, the population could now be down in the tens.”
The Asian unicorn
Hailed as a spectacular zoological coup, the Saola was discovered in 1992 by a joint team from Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) surveying the forests of the Annamite mountain range near Vietnam’s border with Laos. The finding stemmed from the simple act of noticing unusual horned skulls in the homes of hunters in local villages.
Saola (scientific name Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) resembles antelope but is actually a cousin of ruminants, such as buffalo and cattle, and is distinctive due to its long set of straight, tapering horns which project backwards with a slight curve from the top of its skull. This unusual horn appearance combined with its mysterious existence have lead to the Saola being referred to as the “Asian unicorn”.
The saola was the first new mammal species discovered in 50 years. Since 1992, only a handful of confirmed saola sightings are on record, including camera-trap photos taken in 1999, and the capture of an individual animal (which later died) in 2010. As a result, very little is known of its biology and behavior.
Captive saola don’t survive
“Saola are extremely secretive and very seldom seen,” said Nick Cox, manager of WWF-Greater Mekong’s Species Program. “While they inhabit a very restricted range, there is still no reported sightings 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 threatened by the destruction of its natural forested habitat in the Annamites and, more significantly, by hunters. Snares set by roaming poachers target a variety of species valued in the traditional medicine and meat industries.
A united front of local and international forces are working furiously to preserve what few Saola may be left. In addition to the IUCN and WWF, The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is active.
“If hunting levels can be significantly reduced, we are optimistic about the species’ prospects,” said Chris Hallam, WCS-Laos’ Conservation Planning Advisor.
Vietnam and Laos have established a network of protected areas in the animal’s core range, including the Saola Nature Reserve in Vietnam’s Thua Thien Hue Province. Here, a team of forest guards is implementing a successful forest monitoring program and, since February 2011, they have removed more than 12,500 snares and almost 200 illegal hunting and logging camps.
Desperate battle to protect a species
There is a recent precedent for extinctions in this region: in 2011, the last of the Vietnamese Javanese Rhino were killed by poachers. Although not believed to be a common deliberate target of poachers, the saola may hold some value in the traditional medicine market due to the presence of facial scent glands that secrete a thick grey-green paste with a foul, pungent musk. They may also be hunted for their meat and skin, for novelty value or to create displays with their horns.
Unconfirmed evidence suggests that the saola are still being killed, with two carcasses reportedly sold from a Lao village to Vietnamese traders in the past six months.
Ken Aplin, taxonomist for the Australian Wildlife Collection and Wildlife Biologist at CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Australia is certainly worried about the impact of poachers on saola, commenting “the only hope may lie in an immediate intensive effort by the world’s zoo community to establish a captive breeding program. It will require a large effort but arguably, worth the cost”.
The polite animal
Saolo are large animals, measuring around 150 cm in height and weighing 80 to 100 kg. Although often referred to in a Lao dialect as saht-supahp, or ‘the polite animals’, because they move so quietly through the forest, the ‘saola’ moniker has a Thai origin. Sao la in Thai means “spinning wheel posts”, as the animal’s horns resemble the struts supporting a traditional Thai spinning wheel. The Vietnamese languages traditionally have no specific name for the saola, perhaps just another indication of the elusive nature of this mysterious mammal. The first scientific description of Saloa was published in the journal Nature in 1993.
The survival of the saola and other endangered species and habitats will be hot topics at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju, Republic of Korea, from 6 to 15 September 2012.