The Saola’s Battle for Survival on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Forest guards in the rugged Annamite Mountains straddling these two countries are battling against time, racing to remove deadly traps and rescuing endangered animals before they are killed or tracked down by highly trained dogs.
The guards are patrolling nature reserves and protected areas along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, destroying thousands of snares and shutting down scores of illegal hunting camps in an all-out bid to save the rare eight million year old saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) from extinction. Each time a trap is eliminated, the saola’s chances for survival increases.
Efforts in Vietnam and Laos, the only countries where tiny saola populations struggle for survival in the upper reaches of isolated forest patches in border areas in the Annamite Mountain range, were stepped up dramatically in 2012, during the 20th anniversary year of its discovery by scientists in 1992.
Between February 2012 and February 2013 – in two nature reserves alone in central Vietnam – locally-employed WWF guards and Forest Protection Department (FPD) rangers uprooted 336 hunting camps and removed some 13,394 snares. In neighbouring Laos, during six months of activity between September 2011 and November 2012, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) patrol teams in the Phou Sithone Endangered Species Conservation Area wiped out 7,058 traps (Saola Working Group 2013).
Believed to be a relic species of the last Ice Age, the saola was probably squeezed into a narrow strip of evergreen forests along the mountains and foothills of the Annamites, referred to as Truong Son in Vietnam, and as Sai Phou Louang in Laos. So far, the animal has been recorded in Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue and Quang Nam provinces in Vietnam and Bolikhamxay, Khammouane, Savannakhet, Xe Khong and Xieng Khouang provinces in Laos.
Despite daily law enforcement sweeps through saola reserves, trappers penetrate the steep, wet, evergreen forests and are still capturing hundreds of animals each month. In protected areas, where a thousand traps a night are sometimes set, terrified wardens and guards describe close escapes from organized criminals armed with new technology: automatic weapons, chainsaws, sophisticated satellite phones, and all-terrain vehicles that have infiltrated the once secluded hideouts of the world’s remaining saola.
The Critically Endangered saola is not the main target for hunters and traders, but it has become a victim of lethal wire snares, whose numbers have skyrocketed in the past decade. The traps are mainly set to meet the burgeoning demand of Vietnam and China’s growing appetite for game meat and traditional Asian medicines. In Asia, most of the wildlife trade is underground, operates through secret networks and is not included in government statistics; countries including Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Vietnam are major sources of wildlife trade and consumption (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2011).
Escalating affluence in urban areas, combined with improved transport infrastructure is leading to a spiraling demand for many wild species, according to TRAFFIC International, a joint programme of WWF and IUCN that monitors global wildlife trade.
The in-migration of profiteers into the Annamites in search of precious timber and lucrative bushmeat has driven up the earnings of wildlife traders at the top of the supply chain, but most local communities that harvest the wild animals are not benefitting from the big profits. In fact, they are losing one of their main sources of nutrition and coping mechanisms: bushmeat.
TRAFFIC warns that the scale of current hunting is perilous to many forest species and ecosystems not only in Vietnam and Laos, but also around the world; an unprecedented level of hunting threatens communities and the biodiversity upon which they rely. “The development of small-scale alternatives to the unsustainable bushmeat harvest and trade is of paramount importance” (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2011).