The Saola

Beautiful… Mysterious… Critically Endangered.

The scientific discovery of the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) in the forests of Vietnam in 1992 was one of the most spectacular zoological finds of the 20th century.

The species is endemic to the Annamite Mountains, a global biodiversity hotspot along the border of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Saola are solitary ungulates in their own genus within the Bovidae. The Saola’s genus name comes from its physical resemblance to the oryxes of the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.

Little more than two decades after its discovery, this beautiful, enigmatic animal may be the most endangered large mammal in the world. Due to Saola’s rarity, elusiveness and a lack of investment in its conservation, precise population estimates are not yet possible. But we know that at best no more than a few hundred survive, and the population could now be in the tens. Saola is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and ranks as # on EDGE. In fact, IUCN and the Zoological Society of London recently recognized Saola as among the 100 species of plants or animals on earth most in need of increased conservation attention.

Conservation of Saola will also advance conservation of the Annamite Mountains, one of the world’s global biodiversity hotspots. Since the Saola’s discovery there, two new species of muntjacs, a primate, a rabbit, several birds and a rodent from a mammalian family thought to have been extinct for more then 5 million years have been found in the Annamites; this is a pace of large vertebrate discovery unmatched anywhere in the world in perhaps the last 100 years. In addition, other highly distinctive and threatened endemics were already known from the Annamites, including beautiful primates such as the various doucs and crested gibbons. Conservation of Saola will help save these distinctive and threatened species, as well.

In summary, few animals in the world, if any, share the Saola’s combination of four attributes:

1. Phylogenetic distinctiveness (a monospecific genus).
2. Degree of endangerment (IUCN Red List Critically Endangered, and there are none in captivity).
3. Scarcity of conservation attention.
4. Conservation ‘flagship’ of a global biodiversity hotspot (Annamite Mountains).

Consequently, for institutions that wish to make a significant, incremental contribution to global biodiversity conservation, perhaps no species presents a more compelling opportunity than Saola.

Conservation Needs

 Although habitat loss and fragmentation have had a negative effect on Saola populations, the main threat to the survival of the species is commercial poaching for the Asia’s catastrophic wildlife trade. Particularly threatening to Saola is the intensive and widespread use of wire leghold snares. It is difficult to overstate the intensity of snaring in the Annamite Mountains; even in protected areas, in a day’s hike through the forest, one can find, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of illegally set snares.

Paradoxically, Saola is one of the only large animals in the region without a significant price in the wildlife trade.  Probably due its small range and its obscurity, Saola does not appear in the traditional East Asian pharmacopeia.  They are caught up in the general slaughter, rather than targeted specifically.  While tragic, this also presents a tremendous hope and opportunity for Saola’s conservation.  Unlike, for example, rhinos and elephants, poachers are not racing conservationists to find the last Saolas.

cover-leftTo save Saola in the wild, it is imperative to reduce snaring in areas where animals still survive.  Only a dramatic decrease in poaching can protect Saola in its natural habitat. Yet, despite significant recent advances in anti-poaching measures in the Saola’s range, no Saola subpopulation is yet secure.

In addition, all Saola subpopulations are now so reduced that they are subject to a host of problems intrinsic to small populations, such as deleterious effects of genetic inbreeding. Even if all poaching and habitat loss could be stopped today, there is a significant possibility, and even likelihood, that all populations of Saola would drift to extinction within twenty years.  Consequently, it is now essential to establish a Saola captive breeding program, while there is still time.

The Saola Working Group has partnered with the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) to draft an Action Plan for the Conservation Breeding of Saola, in consultation with the government of Lao PDR (GoL) and government of Vietnam (GoV).  With development of this conservation breeding plan, the SWG, GoL and GoV have fully embraced for Saola conservation the One Plan Approach, as developed by the IUCN SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group.  In essence, the One Plan Approach is the joining of in-situ and ex-situ conservation into one, integrated program for the conservation of endangered species.

Under this approach, a captive population of Saola will be established at centres built specifically for this purpose, first in Vietnam, and subsequently in Lao PDR.  At the same time, protection efforts will be expanded to secure key areas of Saola habitat for future reintroduction. The One Plan Approach will be key to saving the last Saolas, and ensuring that this species will once again thrive in the wild.