Elusive saola on the verge of extinction

Posted on 01 March 2004

The saola, a relative of the cow first discovered by scientists in 1992 in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Lao PDR, is facing the most difficult and dangerous decade in its eight-million-year existence.
Nghe An, Vietnam – The saola, a relative of the cow first discovered by scientists in 1992 in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Lao PDR, is now on the verge of extinction. Research is required immediately throughout the regional countries to understand the species, protect it, and to ensure its future. This was the conclusion reached at a workshop, Rediscovering the saola, at which the status of this enigmatic creature was reviewed and plans were discussed for its conservation. 
The saola was the first large mammal to be scientifically discovered in more than half a century. Ten years later, the saola remains elusive and its very existence is severely threatened. Scientific research on the saola has been limited to date, due in part to the difficulty in accessing its habitat, scant knowledge of its distribution and status, and the low profile that the saola has been given until recently.

Some scientists believe that the saola, which may have been the branch animal from which all antelopes and bovids (gazelles, buffalo, mountain goats, and domesticated species such as cattle, sheep, and goats) evolved, has existed for more than eight million years. It is known that the saola, which may have had a much more widespread habitat during various ice ages, now inhabits six provinces in Vietnam and three in Lao PDR. Additional areas may exist, but a lack of funding has limited the comprehensive surveying ability throughout the region. 

Participants at the workshop — held from 27–28 February in Pu Mat National Park, Vietnam, with the support of WWF-Indochina and the Social Forestry and Nature Conservation Project (SFNC) — agreed that it is vital that both the avaiable scientific information and indigenous knowledge about the saola be pooled, reviewed, and used to define a broad range of specific conservation actions that should be taken. 
"The saola population is decreasing because of hunting, habitat loss, and disturbance," said Tony Whitten, senior biodiversity specialist with the World Bank, and a workshop participant. "But, there are all sorts of interactions and different things going on with the saola that we are unaware of. At this point, there is no substitute for one or more long-term field studies aided by local hunters." 
The two-day workshop was attended by Vietnamese and Lao scientists, international specialists, conservation and protection agencies, and representatives of upland communities in areas where action is already underway to save the saola. Participants pooled their knowledge on its population and status to improve their understanding of the habits and habitat of saola to help them in their conservation efforts. 
The workshop concluded with all participants agreeing that a more comprehensive survey of saola in Vietnam and Lao PDR needed to be conducted, that Vietnam needed to develop a saola conservation action plan, and that the saola, a flagship species of the region, needs an all-out effort to be saved. This eight-million-year-old animal may very well be facing the most difficult and dangerous ten-year period in its existence. 
For more information:
Nguyen Thi Dao
Annamites Programme Manager, WWF-Indochina, based in Vietnam
Tel: +84 4 733 8387, ext. 154
E-mail: dao@wwfvn.org.vn 
Pauline Gerrand
WWF-Indochina, Lao Office
Tel: +856 21 216 080
Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, also known as Vu Quang ox).
© WWF / David Hulse