Shy and solitary, the Saola, Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, lives only in the remote valleys of the Annamite Mountains, along the border of Laos and Vietnam. With its white facial markings and long tapering horns, the animal resembles the desert antelopes of Arabia, but is more closely related to wild cattle.
"We are at a point in history when we still have a small but rapidly closing window of opportunity to conserve this extraordinary animal," says William Robichaud, based in Laos, who serves as coordinator of the Saola Working Group.
"That window has probably already closed for another species of wild cattle, the Kouprey, and experts at this meeting are determined that the Saola not be next," Robichaud said.
Wild saola caught on a camera trap in central Laos. 1999 (Photo © Ban Vangban Village, WCS, IUCN courtesy Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group)
Conservation biologists based in four countries met last month in the Loatian capital Vientiane. They agreed that Saola numbers appear to have declined sharply since its discovery in 1992, when it was already rare and restricted to a small range.
The remaining population is estimated at fewer than 250 mature individuals, with a continuing population decline, and the largest subpopulation estimated to number less than 50 mature individuals.
The Saola Working Group includes staff of the forestry departments of Laos and Vietnam, Vietnam's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, and Vinh University, as well as biologists and conservationists from nongovernmental organizations, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund. Experts from the Smithsonian Institution and Gilman Conservation International also joined the meeting.
The biologists convened under the auspices of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission, IUCN SSC. The gathering was organized by the Saola Working Group of IUCN SSC's Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group.
The IUCN's authoritative Red List of Threatened Species lists the Saola as Critically Endangered, which means it faces "an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild."
"The animal's prominent white facial markings and long tapering horns lend it a singular beauty, and its reclusive habits in the wet forests of the Annamites an air of mystery," says Barney Long, of the IUCN Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group.
To date, scientists have categorically documented Saola in the wild on only four occasions. There is not yet a reliable method for detecting the species other than direct observation or camera trapping. Incidences of either of these encounters are extremely rare.
The first photograph of a Saola in the wild was taken in 1998 from a camera trap set near a mineral spring in Pu Mat National Park, Vietnam. A few months later, the species was camera-trapped in Laos, in Bolikhamxay Province, Robichaud reported in 1999. The only other potentially reliable method of detection is through genetic analysis of feces.
"Saola have rarely been seen or photographed, and have proved difficult to keep alive in captivity," said Long, a World Wildlife Fund conservation biologist. "None is held in any zoo, anywhere in the world. Its wild population may number only in the dozens, certainly not more than a few hundred."
The only saola photographed in captivity (Photo by William Robichaud courtesy IUCN)
Only one live adult Saola has ever been seen by members of the public other than scientists. A female was captured in 1996 in Laos by local villagers and placed in a local menagerie, but she survived only a few weeks.
With none in zoos and almost nothing known about how to maintain them in captivity, for Saola, extinction in the wild would mean its extinction everywhere, with no possibility of recovery and reintroduction, the biologists recognize.
The Saola is threatened primarily by hunting accelerated by continued fragmentation of its habitat to increased human access, mainly through road construction. The new Ho Chi Minh Road through the Annamite Mountains in Vietnam, with additional roads branching to Laos, is a major and probably unmitigatable threat, according to experts at the Vientiane meeting.
They identified snaring and hunting with dogs as the main direct threats to the species and emphasized that the Saola cannot be saved without intensified removal of poachers' snares and reduction of hunting with dogs in key areas of the Annamite forests.
"No part of the species' extent of occurrence is effectively protected from hunting. Local hunters in the species' range commonly go years without seeing an animal, indicating very low and suppressed population density," the IUCN states on its Red List Saola page.
Saola inhabit wet evergreen forests with little or no dry season and are present only in forest blocks over over 25 square kilometers.
Young, female saola, 2007. (Photo courtesy Silviculture)
Habitat destruction is also a threat to the Saola, says the IUCN, as forests in their range are being cleared for small-scale agricultural use, timber extractions, roads, and hydropower development.
The area of forest remaining in the known historical range of the Saola is 5,000 to 15,000 square kilometers, but much of this range is probably no longer inhabited by the species, the IUCN says, warning, "Saola numbers may be so low that no viable populations remain."
Improved methods to detect Saola in the wild and radio tracking to understand the animal's conservation needs are required, said biologists at the Vientiane meeting.
Increased awareness in Laos, Vietnam and the world conservation community of the perilous status of this species and markedly increased donor support for Saola conservation are also needed, they said.
This species is listed on Appendix I of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, and both of its range countries are CITES signatories. It is protected by national law in Vietnam and in Laos.
Efforts to initiate Saola conservation activities in Laos have received little government support, and in some cases have been actively blocked. Robichaud wrote two editions of a conservation action plan for the species in Laos in 1997 and 1999, but permission for implementation has not been granted by the Lao government.
The IUCN says, "The reasons for this are not clear, but may be due to fear of slowing logging and hydropower development."
A comprehensive Saola Conservation Action Plan for Vietnam has now been drafted.
Still, the IUCN states, "intense hunting and a multitude of exacerbating pressures on Saola are increasing and evidence indicates that the species, which is naturally uncommon and localized, is in a major decline. The trend is likely to result in the extinction of Saola in the foreseeable future."
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.