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The Saola is Still a Mystery 20 years After its Debut


Two decades after the sensational discovery of a new species called the saola, this rare animal remains as mysterious and elusive as ever. The species is sliding toward extinction because of intensive hunting pressure and weak reserve management according to experts from WWF, the Saola Working Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and the Wildlife Conservation Society.  

Hunted to the Edge

Saola are caught in wire snares set by hunters to catch other animals, such as sambar deer, muntjac deer and civets. Hunters set these snares to catch those species largely for the lucrative illegal wildlife trade market, driven by traditional medicine demand in Vietnam and China and restaurant and food markets in Vietnam and Laos. Rapid development is also encroaching on the saola’s forest habitat.

An Icon for the Mekong

The saola is a symbol for biodiversity in the Annamite mountain range that runs along the border of Vietnam and Laos. This area boasts an incredible diversity of rare species, with many found nowhere else on the planet. In addition to the discovery of the saola, two other new ungulate species—the large-antlered muntjac deer and the Truong Son muntjac deer—were uncovered in the Annamite’s rugged, evergreen forests in 1994 and 1997 respectively.

An Urgent Mission

Efforts to save the saola have taken on greater urgency since another of Vietnam's iconic species—the Vietnamese Javan rhino—was confirmed extinct. The last Vietnamese Javan rhino was lost to poachers in 2011.

Vietnam and Laos have established a network of protected areas in the saola’s core range and some reserves are pursuing innovative approaches to tackle rampant poaching.

“The establishment of critical reserves by the governments of Vietnam and Laos is to be commended,” said Dr. Barney Long, Asian species expert for WWF. “However, without increasing efforts to adopt new approaches to manage the protection of saola habitat through targeted snare removal, these protected areas will be little more than lines drawn on a map.”

In the Saola Nature Reserve in Vietnam’s Thua Thien Hue Province, a new approach supported by WWF to forest guard co-management is delivering good results. Since February 2011, the newly established team of forest guards patrolling the reserve removed more than 12,500 snares and close to 200 illegal hunting and logging camps.

Conservationists are optimistic about the saola’s future if the most pressing threat—hunting—can be significantly reduced. This will require more antipoaching patrols, local community support and a marked decline in demand for wildlife meat and products.