The Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is a large wild ox whose global range comprises only the Annamite Mountains of central Vietnam and Lao PDR (Laos). This unique animal, first described by scientists in 1993, was at one point thought to be related to goats, but recent research has identified it as a “primitive” member of the same evolutionary lineage as wild cattle.
Listed as Critically Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the 85 kg (200 lb) Saola has yet to be seen in the wild by researchers, and its global population is estimated at 250-300. The primary threat to Saola is hunting, chiefly from incidental by-catch in snares set for other animals, but also from professional hunters interested in the animal’s horns as decorative objects. Little is known of the Saola’s tracks and signs, distribution, abundance, habitat use, diet, behavior, and genetics. What information does exist comes primarily from indigenous peoples living within its range. Since its description, the Saola has rapidly become a flagship species for Vietnamese biodiversity and conservation initiatives.
Because so little is known of the Saola’s numbers and natural history, field-based research efforts are urgently needed to collect data on the species distribution and behavior and to develop reliable methods for detecting and monitoring its presence.
Saola Research and Conservation
Scientists from the CBC collaborated with World Wildlife Fund’s Greater Mekong Programme and Vietnam’s Forest Protection Department on the first and at the time only initiative researching and implementing Saola conservation measures. The work was carried out in the rugged, mountainous landscape lying along the border of central Vietnam’s Quang Nam and Thua Thien-Hue provinces, an area recognized as the global priority landscape for Saola conservation.
Beginning in March of 2008, the project identified four areas with high probability of Saola living in them and implemented a six-month-long camera-trapping initiative in these areas. Camera-trapping, the deployment of remotely-triggered flash cameras in areas difficult to access, has been effective in detecting the presence of secretive and rare mammals. This technique was particularly suitable for determining Saola distribution since there were no descriptions of tracks, dung, scrapings, or other markings and field signs that could be unequivocally attributed to Saola.
In late 2007 two new protected areas designed specifically to conserve Saola and their habitats were established in Quang Nam and Thua Thien-Hue provinces. These efforts will help to conserve not just the Saola but the globally significant plant and animal communities of the Annamite mountains.
The Saola is part of a group of poorly known, endemic ungulates restricted to the Annamites, including the large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) and the Roosevelts’ muntjac species complex (M. rooseveltorum, M. truongsonensis, and others). In addition to these large hoofed mammals, the Annamites support many endemic primates, birds, amphibians, orchids, and conifers, and the project benefited multiple other unique organisms that live in the central Annamites.
Asia’s ‘unicorn’ photographed in Vietnam
In 1992, scientists made a spectacular discovery: a large, land mammal (200 pounds) that had somehow eluded science even as humans visited the moon and split the atom. Its discoverers, with WWF and Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry, dubbed the species the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis).
Found in the Annamite Mountains in Laos and Vietnam, the saola is a two-horned beautiful bovine that resembles an African antelope and, given its rarity, has been called the Asian unicorn.
Since its discovery, scientists have managed to take photos via camera trap of a wild saola (in 1999) and even briefly studied live specimens brought into villages in Laos before they died (in 1996 and again in 2010), however, the constant fear of extinction loomed over efforts to save the species. But WWF has announced good news today: a camera trap has taken photos of a saola in an unnamed protected area in Vietnam, the first documentation of the animal in the country in 15 years.
“In Vietnam, the last sighting of a saola in the wild was in 1998,” says Dang Dinh Nguyen, Deputy Head of Quang Nam Forest Protection Department and Director of Quang Nam’s Saola Nature Reserve. “This is an historic moment in Vietnam’s efforts to protect our extraordinary biodiversity, and provides powerful evidence of the effectiveness of conservation efforts in critical saola habitat.”
In 2011, the Vietnamese government set up the Saola Nature Reserve even though scientists weren’t certain how many individuals were left in the country if any. Until September (when WWF took the camera trap photo) there had been no evidence of a living saola since the brief captive died in 2010.
In both Laos and Vietnam, the saola is most at risk from snares set out by local hunters for other species. Programs have been set up across both countries to combat the snare problem in saola-territory. Other threats include hunting with dogs and habitat loss, especially due to infrastructure projects like roads which open up impenetrable forests to new impacts. Scientists believe the species has at best only a few hundred animals left and maybe only a couple dozen. In fact, according to the IUCN Red List, “Saola numbers may be so low that no viable populations remain.”
Still, this doesn’t mean conservationists are giving up.
This camera trap photo with saola on the far right confirms the species’ existence in Vietnam. Photo by: WWF.
“Since 2011, forest guard patrols in [the area] have removed more than 30,000 snares from this critical saola habitat and destroyed more than 600 illegal hunters’ camps. Confirmation of the presence of the saola in this area is a testament to the dedicated and tireless efforts of these forest guards,” says Van Ngoc Thinh, WWF-Vietnam’s Country Director.
Despite being known to science for over 20 years, researchers know next to nothing about the saola itself, including behavior, breeding, and even diet. Even with remote camera traps, monitoring the saola population has proven incredibly difficult if not impossible.
William Robichaud, who has spent over a decade working to save the species from extinction, told mongabay.com today that the newly released photo is “probably the most important photo of an animal in the wild, at least in Asia, in a decade or more. The fact that it was taken in Vietnam, where both human population density and poaching intensity, are higher than in Laos, is very encouraging.
We also know it to be in a protected area (although WWF is not saying which one, so as not to tip off poachers), and one that has recently implemented a model of well-funded, well-managed ‘forest guards,’ recruited from local communities. This is evidence that such efforts can work. We now need to scale them up to other saola priority sites.”
In 2011, Robichaud called the saola the most astounding zoological discovery of the 20th Century among vertebrates—so long as one included the okapi, which was discovered in 1900. Both the saola and the okapi are distinct enough to be the only members of their genus.
WWF’s camera trap images not only confirm its survival in Vietnam but also adds new impetus for conservation programs there, which could benefit many other species, including the large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) and the Truong Son muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis), both discovered after the saola in the 1990s. The large-antlered is the world’s biggest muntjac (though still smaller than the saola) and is listed as Endangered, while the Truong Son muntjac is considered Data Deficient.
“When our team first looked at the photos [of the saola] we couldn’t believe our eyes. Saola is the holy grail for Southeast Asian conservationists so there was a lot of excitement,” says Van Ngoc Thinh. “This is a breathtaking discovery and renews hope for the recovery of the species.”
A female saola that was brought into a Laos village in 1996, nicknamed Martha. She died after 18 days in captivity. Photo by: © William Robichaud.