WASHINGTON, DC, May 21, 2012 – Two decades after the discovery of the saola – one of the most spectacular species discoveries of the 20th century – the rare large mammal remains as mysterious as ever. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns that the species, found in the mountains of Vietnam, faces extinction unless protection efforts are intensified.
The saola is a primitive member of the Bovidae family, which includes antelopes, buffalo, bison, cattle, goats and sheep. The species is recognized by two parallel horns with sharp ends, which can reach 20 inches in length. They have striking white markings on the face and large maxillary glands on the muzzle that may be used to mark territory or attract mates.
The greatest threat facing the saola comes from illegal hunting. Saola are caught in wire snares set by hunters to catch other animals, such as deer and civets, which are destined for the lucrative wildlife trade, largely for sale in urban restaurants.
“We need to take urgent action to ensure that saola don’t vanish as the result of poaching,” said Dr. Barney Long, WWF’s Asian species expert.
The saola was discovered in 1992 by a joint team from Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry and WWF surveying the forests near Vietnam's border with Laos.The team found a skull with long, straight horns in a hunter's home that they identified as a new species.The find proved to be the first large mammal discovery to science in more than 50 years, and one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.
“Saola are incredibly elusive animals, and combined with their low number are nearly impossible to find,” added Dr. Long. “Even though we know the general area where they live, we’ve still never seen one in the wild – and the handful that have been caught by locals have not survived for any length of time.”
Twenty years later, little is still known about the saola’s ecology or behavior. 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 the same province. 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,” said William Robichaud, Coordinator of the Saola Working Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “If things are bad, the population could now be down in the tens.”
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 solutions to tackle rampant poaching, with support from WWF. A new approach involving community forest guards in the Saola Nature Reserve in Vietnam’s Thua Thien Hue Province is delivering positive results. Since February 2011, the newly established team of forest guards patrolling the reserve has removed more than 12,500 snares and close to 200 illegal hunting and logging camps.
Efforts to save the saola have reached a greater level of urgency since another of Vietnam's iconic species, the Vietnamese Javan rhino, was confirmed extinct in 2011 due to poaching for its horn.
“The lack of significant demand for saola in the wildlife trade gives great hope for its conservation,” said Robichaud. “But we still need to act. One of the rarest and most distinctive large animals in the world has been quietly slipping toward extinction through complacency.”