THE ISSUES: Why is Saola Endangered?

Multiple issues have converged to make the Saola one of the world’s most endangered mammals, but all of them are solvable.

Hunting

Saola is threatened primarily by hunting, rather than habitat loss. The main hunting threat comes from commercial poaching, not subsistence hunting by local people.

In Southeast Asia, most endangered species of wildlife are threatened by targeted offtake for the wildlife trade, either for bushmeat or traditional Asian medicine. Paradoxically, Saola is one of few large animals in the region without a significant price on its head. Ancient Chinese and other Asian cultures never knew the Saola, and so it does not appear in their traditional pharmacopeias. But Saola gets caught up in the general slaughter, and they are killed incidentally, as by-catch.

Patrol team member with wires snares collected in Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area, Lao PDR.  Particularly dangerous for Saola is the setting of thousands of wire cable snares in its range by professional poachers. The scale of the problem is staggering.

Since 2011, the SWG and its partners have focused on improving protection at five protected areas believed to be key for saola conservation, in Lao PDR and Vietnam. Since inception of the program, patrol teams recruited from local villagers have removed more than 130,000 wire snares from these areas. Yet still, thousands more snares remain (as the most committed poachers continue to reset them). Despite significant improvements in protected area management, and continual progress, no area in Lao PDR or Vietnam is yet sufficiently well protected to save viable populations of Saola.

A Saola found in a snare in Lao PDR in 2010 (villagers took the animal to their village, where it died a few days later).

IUCN Critically Endangered Large-antlered Muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) dead in a snare in Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area, Lao PDR.

Effects of small population size

Saola is now distributed in several isolated, small subpopulations.

These subpopulations are now probably small enough to be threatened further by other affects, such as genetic inbreeding and loss of heterozygosity, skewed sex ratios, and difficulty of isolated males and females to find each other for mating. The results of an preliminary Population Viability Analysis, conducted by the Saola Working Group at its meeting in November, 2015, indicate that even if immediate cessation of all hunting threats could be achieved, it is likely that all Saola subpopulations would drift to extinction in the next 10 to 15 years.

Insufficient conservation attention and resources

Saola is also indirectly threatened by insufficient attention to and investment in its conservation, both by the governments of Lao PDR and Vietnam, and the international conservation and donor community.

This lack of attention is a limitation that the SWG in particular has worked, with considerable success, to change. The situation is now better. Still, the fact that remains that Saola conservation has not yet been attempted in a comprehensive manner. This beautiful animal risks going quietly extinct from insufficient attention.