In Viet Nam, a search for the elusive saola

Conservationists aren’t giving up hope that the mammal still exists in the Annamite Mountains

A ranger crouches on the ground and uses a spoon to put a sample into a tube
A black and white camera trap image shows a saola walking through the forest

This camera trap image of a saola took Ngoc Thinh's breath away.

In the 25 years that he’s been with WWF, Ngoc Thinh has one date that stands out in his mind: Sept. 7, 2013. Thinh, WWF-Viet Nam’s CEO, was at a conference when he received a message with a picture attached.

The image, captured at sundown by a camera trap in central Viet Nam, showed the lush understory and forest floor in a remote part of Quang Nam province, close to the Lao PDR border. But what took Thinh’s breath away and almost brought him to tears was the large antelope-like mammal skirting the right edge of the frame, a creature so rare its nickname is the “Asian unicorn.”

When the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) was first discovered by the scientific community in 1992 by a joint team from WWF and the Viet Nam government, it was the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years.

But the species is notoriously elusive.  The saola was last spotted in the wild by a camera trap in 2013. A few had been captured in the past, but none had ever survived beyond a few months in captivity— including a baby that Thinh helped look after in the late 1990s while working as head of the scientific research division of Bach Ma National Park, whose deaths he describes as causing “a lot of heartache.” The last captive saola, an individual rescued from hunters in neighboring Lao PDR, also died in 2010.

But here was finally proof that the species hadn’t gone extinct. “It was a very emotional moment for me,” recalls Thinh, CEO of WWF-Viet Nam.

The joy, however, was short-lived, for saola have not been spotted since, and none exist in captivity. Still, conservationists continue to be optimistic that the species, albeit critically endangered, survive today—with estimates suggesting up to 100 individuals might remain in the wild. Buoyed by this hope, WWF, alongside partners and other wildlife organizations, is working hard to locate saola in their natural habitat, while simultaneously drawing up plans that will help conserve the species for future generations.

A relic of time

Saola are found in only one place on Earth: the evergreen broadleaf forests of the Central Annamites, on the border of Viet Nam and Lao PDR. Compared to the rest of the region, the rugged Annamite mountains remained geologically and climatically stable throughout the ages, resulting in a biodiversity hotspot with exceptionally high levels of endemism—including the uniquely evolved saola.

“They’re the mascot here,” says Thinh of the animals, which are considered bovids like bison, antelopes, and cattle, but appear completely different, distinguished by a pair of long parallel horns. “They look like an ancient species.”

However, scientists know little about the saola—their range, courting and breeding behaviors, diet, and so on—a plight made only more worrisome by the animals’ small population, which has dwindled largely due to poaching pressure and habitat destruction.

Preserving and protecting saola

To help protect the species, forest guards remove any snares they encounter on their patrols and visit villagers’ houses to discuss the dangers of setting such traps. In recent years, with support from projects such as USAID Biodiversity Conservation and WWF’s Carbon and Biodiversity Project (CarBi), rangers, the protected area's staff, and local non-governmental organizations have also been trained in various biodiversity monitoring methods. These include setting and retrieving camera traps in the forest, as well as how to collect animal dung and blood from leeches and water samples. Samples from the latter can be analyzed to detect the presence of saola DNA, possibly indicating an animal nearby.

“My dream is to see a saola again one day.”

Ngoc Thinh
CEO, WWF Viet Nam

Some organizations, such as the Saola Working Group, use dogs to sniff out saola. They also conduct interviews with local community members to uncover possible sightings. To further raise public awareness of the animals and the importance of protecting the habitat they live in, WWF-Viet Nam, launched a campaign last October called “Preserving the forests—Reuniting with the saola” to raise awareness about the saola and its plight in the wild, as well as providing communities with the information and tools they might need to share any sightings they may have of saola to inform species conservation programs.

Additionally, the team in Viet Nam supports efforts led by communities living in the Central Annamites to grow plants that saolas are known to be fond of. These include thien nien kien (Homalomena aromatica), an herb with heart-shaped leaves that is also known for its medicinal properties. This not only restores native plants to the forest but also provides food for saola, which both improves their nutritional health as well as acts as a tool in detecting saola feeding behavior.

Meanwhile, plans are being drawn up to establish a captive breeding program for saola at Bach Ma National Park to reintroduce them in Central Annamite forests. Construction of enclosures to house future saola will hopefully get underway later this year, says park director Nguyen Vu Linh. With so few individuals remaining in the wild, most conservationists agree that a captive breeding program is critical for bringing saola back from the brink of extinction—pointing to how similar efforts have helped boost wild population numbers of the endangered Arabian oryx and takhi (Przewalski’s horse) in Oman and Mongolia, respectively.

“Both Viet Nam and Lao PDR have agreed that any saola found in either country will be brought to Bach Ma for captive breeding. Many questions still remain on how such a program would work should this day arrive, but we really believe this will help the animals and recovery of the broader ecosystem,” says Thinh. “My dream is to see a saola again one day.”

Learn more about saola.

Learn more about WWF's work in Viet Nam.