Chasing Saola Stories Part II

In the Chasing Saola Stories series, SWG member Nicholas Wilkinson will be re-counting his adventures last summer in Vietnam to engage local people in finding surviving Saola. The series installments will be posted bi-weekly. Villagers’ names have been changed to protect their identity.

Coming up with a protocol for interviews, training people in doing interviews and actually trying to do some useful interviews aren’t really things you should be doing at the same time. But time is seriously restricted. On previous trainings, I’d always been able to get the whole team watching the first interview in a relatively controlled setting, i.e. not a party. We should be doing this with Mr. Hoang Meng in the morning before the party, but he’s disappeared. Anyway he’s already given us information over dinner and we can’t just ask him again. Instead, we have a briefing session sitting around in the yard and, of course, when we get to the party, everyone just spreads out.

The ceremony has started in another house near a muddy crossroads, which I guess is the village center. The house looks the same as Mr. Hoang Meng’s house. They all do. Some students go to interview the older men squatting outside the house while others approach the young men and boys standing around in the road and on the volleyball court. None of us go inside to where the shamans are dancing—at least not yet.

Immediately I hear the word ‘Saola’ coming from all quarters and curse myself.

Flags for the ceremony. (Photo by Do Van Thoai)

Pro tip: if you’re trying to find out information from local people about some particular rare animal species, probably don’t start by mentioning that species by name. In the places where I’d worked before, I had to work hard to make sure my official papers didn’t bear the word ‘Saola.’ Otherwise the village headman would read them and then introduce you to some community elder with “this westerner is looking for Saola—you know a lot about animals so tell him about Saola.” The elder then looks like he’s letting down the village if he says he’s never heard of the beast.

Cutting my losses, I hover behind Thoai and Huyen as they talk to some of the younger guys (we want recent sightings, not traditional lore). It seems we are talking to Kim, the same guy that Dũng and Thoại met on their last trip. He’d told them then that he’d seen two Saola in last year’s dry season (theoretically that’s October through April of 2016) on a hunting trip with Mr. Hua. The animals were 1 or 1-and-a-half days from the village on the left side of Khe Kheng and he chased them with dogs and a gun but they got away. But, in that previous interview, Kim was just confirming the story which Hoang Meng gave, while Hoang Meng was there. And that wasn’t the same as the story Hoang Meng gave us last night. For one thing, Thoại and Dũng had got the impression last time that Hoang Meng had been there himself as well as Mr. Kim and Mr. B’long but last night he’d said otherwise. This kind of thing is pretty normal.

Now Kim tells us that, not only was Mr. Hoang Meng not there, but neither was Mr. B’long–whoever he is. In fact, the party consisted of himself, one Mr. Vu, Mr. Kong and also a local rubber-worker who’s since moved elsewhere. Furthermore, all Kim saw himself was the animal’s dung. He says it was different from a Serow’s dung, which is goat-like and was more like a cow’s. That’s an interesting detail I haven’t heard from a hunter before. The part about chasing the Saola and losing them was true—a recent landslide got in the way—but it was Mr. Kong who saw the animals, not Kim. That makes the next question obvious: where’s Mr. Kong? Turns out he’s standing right behind us.

For a hunter, Kong has an oddly soft, round face and it makes his wariness seem merely self-effacing. We get from him a broadly similar story—he’d gone out from camp with just his dogs when he found two adult Saola, lying in the sunlight of a clearing made by a recent landslide. The dogs gave chase but—and I think I’ve got this bit right—it was hard to follow the Saola over the soft earth of the landslide. They had long horns.

 

Ready for the big reveal. (Photo by Do Van Thoai)

“They had long horns” is the kind of simple phrase you often find yourself wondering about later. Did he mean ‘they had the long horns typical of Saola—and therefore they were not Serow.’ Or is it rather that ‘their horns were particularly long, even for Saola.’ Or perhaps that ‘they had long horns and were therefore adult?’ In this case it’s made clearer by his statement that he’s never seen Saola before, so it’s probably the first one. According to Trung, he’s one of the two top hunters in the village, though I’m not sure who told Trung that. But then he’s also quite young and there are claims—though I’ve always distrusted them before—that Saola were naturally rare or absent from this area, even when still relatively common elsewhere. So he could well be a good hunter and not have seen Saola before. The problem is, how sure can we be that he knows what a Saola is?

He gives us a description that is…okay. It’s not great, but there’s nothing definitely wrong with it. He says Serow are called ‘Sai’ and there are two kinds—those with white lower-legs and those whose lower legs are red or yellow. That describes known variation within the Serow in the Annamites. It isn’t reason for us to divide them into separate species as Kong seems to. That doesn’t matter, his classification doesn’t have to match ours to show that he knows something about Serow.

Saola, apparently, is known as ‘Sai Tja’ with ‘Tja’ being a term resistant to translation into Vietnamese but possibly meaning something like ‘pointy’—the pointy Serow. Because of the horns, presumably. So far so good.

The horns are straight and the animal has two white marks under the eyes, as well as white on the flanks and belly. He explains this by indicating places on his own body, so it’s a bit open to interpretation. For example Dung thinks he said the animal has a white ring around the neck (not true of Saola) whereas Trung thinks he just meant this marking was somewhere on the neck (also not true, but not so strikingly wrong). I am trying to interpret Vietnamese, a subtle language that I still speak only haltingly and which Kong also knows as his second language. Did he really mean ‘ring?’ For that matter, did he really mean ‘neck’ as we would understand it? Perhaps he was referring to the white marks above the animal’s jawline. A language student like Dung, who hasn’t worked in the mountains before might misinterpret the less precise Vietnamese of a H’mong villager. Words often take new meanings in the mountains. On the other hand, a biologist like Trung, who knows what Saola really look like, and who also has a lot of confidence in the skills of hunters, might try too hard to make the description fit the picture in his head. So might I, for that matter, and the description has been through several filters and distortions before it encounters my own biases. I judge it ‘believable’ though by no means outstanding, and I don’t think we can do much more with it now. The more we make this into an interrogation, the more the account will get distorted and then those distortions are harder to straighten out later. I think we need to spend time in the forest with these guys. But we also need to ask around more. After getting some descriptions of dung, feeding sign and footprints, I go into the house.

A big man stands on a wooden bench atop a trestle table and dances while a thinner, older man sits beside him, rocking. Both wear red caps like Santa’s elf hats that cover their faces and both those faces are to the wall. The dancer sings as he dances and both the dance and the song just…continue. His oil-grey shirt is soaked with sweat but the dance, while vigorous, is also measured; it is not a wild dance. The undulation of his shoulders shakes his big bronze thumb-rings, which shiver with internal bells. The song has tread—it doesn’t quite set the hairs on the back of my neck up but I think it comes closer than any other music I’ve heard in Vietnam. “This is H’mong language?” I ask a youngish man sitting next to me in the corner. He says it is (well obviously) and is not thereby engaged in conversation. The dance and the chanting go on. One of our group notes how small the altar is, how meager its offerings seem to her. A Kinh altar in the lowlands would have several bowls of sticky rice on a big tin tray along with strips of boiled chicken and shot glasses of liquor. There’d be a thicket of incense sticks in the bowl. This is just a little table with some glasses on and some things made of paper.

 

Goat in its finery. (Photo by Nicholas Wilkinson)

You can’t really talk in here so I go out but the people outside have either entered or dispersed. I come back in. The older shaman is dancing now and there is a sort of maze on the floor made of cut slivers of banana trunk with hundreds of small white flags stuck into their backs. I ask my laconic neighbor what this is about. “It’s just a thing we do,” he says, “it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like religion.” Then two men arrive in the doorway with a frightened goat that is laden with hundreds of butterfly-shaped things made of wood shavings. The big shaman in the oil grey shirt gets off the bench and removes his hat. Turns out it was Mr. Hoang Meng all along. The goat, I gather, is going up the hill but we don’t have to follow yet. Fortunately. I don’t want to watch the slaughter.

We end up going back to Mr. Hoang Meng’s for lunch. I’m wondering whether I’d have handled the morning better if I’d had a good night’s sleep but one of the students who took the inside bed tells us she was woken up by ‘a mouse dancing on her face.’ So, swings and roundabouts.

Read Chasing Saola Stories: Part I

Supporting Women in Conservation: SWG Offers New Grant Opportunity

By Kristin Arakawa

The SWG has established a new fund to support the conservation endeavors of women in Vietnam and Laos that will contribute to the conservation of biodiversity within the Annamites Mountain range. By supporting the conservation efforts and research projects of women, the Women for the Annamites Conservation Fund aims to advance conservation by tapping into the underused talents of women.

“I feel it’s important to support women in conservation everywhere,” said Lesley Dickie, CEO of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, who raised the funds to establish the Women for the Annamites Conservation Fund by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 2014. “We make up half the planet and have resources to bring. I think it additionally helps bolster the social acceptance of women as key community drivers.”

SWG member Camille Coudrat, who will oversee the fund for the SWG, said she believes this opportunity will inspire more young women to pursue a conservation career path. Highlighting women as role models in local communities can encourage other women with diverse ethnic backgrounds to also play important roles in their community.

The new fund will support projects that demonstrate a direct link to conservation of Annamites’ biodiversity. Potential initiatives may encompass a wide variety of conservation activities including, but not limited to, research, capacity building, community outreach, and the promotion of sustainable livelihoods. Successful project proposals will incorporate measurable conservation goals and implement activities that can be replicated. Through this new fund, recipients will obtain not only financial support, but also technical assistance and encouragement when needed, Coudrat said.

“A small grant like this one can really make the difference; it can provide the first step to larger projects that can have long-term impacts on biodiversity conservation,” Coudrat said. “We believe that small projects have great potential to impact the conservation of threatened species such as Saola, Large-antlered Muntjac, Owston’s Civet, and the Annamite Striped Rabbit, among others.”

The Women for the Annamites Conservation Fund has two application windows per year, one ending on May 31 and the other on December 31. For those planning to apply by May 31, the selection committee will make a decision on the applications by the end of June. Dickie said she believes the grant could potentially attract applications from local women with a non-western science perspective, providing the chance for different stakeholders to contribute to conservation efforts in this region.

“New voices can mean new ideas and I think this grant will explore that and complement the existing work of the SWG in research and habitat protection,” Dickie said.

Download a grant application and submit to the grants administrator, Dr. Camille Coudrat: camillecoudrat@gmail.com.

(All photos by Project Anoulak)

Saving the saola from extinction

This note is re-printed here and first appeared in Science, volume 357, page 1248.

The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis)—a primitive wild cattle species (1) endemic to the Annamite mountain range of Vietnam and Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR)—was first discovered in 1992 (2, 3). Twenty-five years later, it is on the verge of extinction (4). Although precise population estimates are not possible, the Saola Working Group, part of the Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, estimated in 2015 that fewer than 100 saola survive (5).

The primary threat to saola is intensive, commercial snaring (6) to supply the thriving wildlife trade in Indochina (7). Because snares kill indiscriminately, nontarget species such as saola are affected along with target species. Other threatened endemic species in the region, including the recently discovered large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) and Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), also suffer from snares (8, 9).

There has been little progress in either Vietnam or Lao PDR to sufficiently reduce snaring, and even if poaching could be stopped, saola numbers are now too low and fragmented to allow the species to recover. To save saola from extinction, we must rescue surviving individuals and provide a protected habitat for them. The last saola must be found, caught and transferred to captive breeding facilities located within the range countries. The first facility is currently being built in Vietnam (10). The breeding center will be staffed with hoofstock experts to ensure the survival and successful breeding of captured saola. After a captive population has been secured, the next challenge will be to protect one or more areas from poaching—only then can the species be reintroduced into the wild. Other threatened Annamite endemics will benefit from these protection efforts. Creating a place for saola to flourish will require a substantial, wellfunded, collaborative international effort, in partnership with the governments of Vietnam and Lao PDR.

AUTHORS
Andrew Tilker,1,2 Barney Long,2
Thomas N.E. Gray,3 William Robichaud,4
Thinh Van Ngoc,5 Nguyen Vu Linh,6
Jeff Holland,7 Stephen Shurter,8 Pierre
Comizzoli,9 Patrick Thomas,10 Radoslaw
Ratajszczak,11 James Burton12

1Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin 10315, Germany. 2Global Wildlife Conservation, Austin, TX 78767, USA. 3Wildlife Alliance, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 4Saola Working Group c/o Global Wildlife Conservation, Austin, TX 78767, USA. 5World Wildlife Fund–Vietnam, Hanoi, Vietnam. 6Nature Department, Vietnam Forestry
Administration, Hanoi, Vietnam. 7Center for the Conservation of Tropical Ungulates, Punta Gorda, FL 33982, USA. 8White Oak Conservation, Yulee, FL 32097, USA. 9Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008, USA. 10Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx Zoo, New York, NY 10460, USA. 11Zoo Wroclaw, Wroclaw, Poland. 12IUCN SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group, Austin, TX 78767, USA.

REFERENCES
1. A. Hassanin, E. J. P. Douzery, Proc. R. Soc. London Ser. B Biol. Sci. 266, 893 (1999).
2. V. V. Dung et al., Nature 363, 443 (1993).
3. G. B. Schaller, A. Rabinowitz, Oryx 29, 107 (1995).
4. R. Stone, Science 325, 1192 (2009).
5. Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Meeting of the IUCN
Saola Working Group, Hanoi, Vietnam (4–7 November 2015).
6. T. N. E. Gray et al., Science 355, 255 (2017).
7. V. Nijman, Biodivers. Conserv. 19, 1101 (2010).
8. A. Abramov et al. Nesolagus timminsi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2008).
9. R. J. Timmins et al., Muntiacus vuquangensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2016).
10. 2016 Annual Report of the IUCN Saola Working Group. (2016); www.savethesaola.org/wp-content/
uploads/2016/01/SWG-Annual-Report-160329-Lsmall.pdf.

(Artwork by Eric Losh for Saola Working Group)

IUCN honours two Saola Working Group members

At the quadrennial meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC), held in Abu Dhabi in September 2015, IUCN recognized two members of the SWG with conservation awards.

SWG Coordinator William Robichaud was given the Harry Messel Award for Conservation Leadership, for “his extraordinary leadership in raising global attention for the conservation of the Saola… and building a dedicated network of scientists and practitioners in Laos and Vietnam focused on saving this iconic species.”

An SWG founding member, Simon Hedges, was given the SSC Chair’s Citation of Excellence for “his huge contributions to SSC’s work on Asian large mammals”. Congratulations to them both!