Vietnam’s invincible biologist

Posted on 09 July 2013

Do Tuoc never walks. He sprints. His enthusiasm belies his age. He is around ten years older than actor Jackie Chan, who retired from action films at age 58. Biologist Do Tuoc has no intention of hanging up his binoculars.
By Dr Elizabeth Kemf.

Do Tuoc never walks. He sprints. His enthusiasm belies his age. He is around ten years older than actor Jackie Chan, who retired from action films at age 58. Biologist Do Tuoc has no intention of hanging up his binoculars.

The scientist who can truly be credited with the discovery of the world’s most primitive bovine, the saola, over 20 years ago, Do Tuoc, is not in Hanoi often. When he is coaxed out of the forest, you can usually find him in the tree nursery or some other corner of the botanic gardens of the Forestry Inventory and Planning Institute (FIPI).

In late May, of last year – a few days after the 20th Anniversary of the discovery of the first large terrestrial mammal named to science since 1937 – FIPI staff had to remind Do Tuoc that I was coming to interview him. I met him and Vu Van Dung, former director of FIPI and head of the scientific team that found the rare animal in 1992, when I first travelled to Vietnam in 1985 to carry out research on the environmental effects of the American War.

Earlier last year, when WWF, the first organization to support my pilot research project in Vietnam in 1985, suggested Tuoc and I meet at FIPI for a reunion he said I would remember the way to the institute. In 2013, I am lost in Hanoi. Twenty-eight years ago, the quiet city, whose lanes and houses were lit at night by oil lamps, and whose constant stream of bicycles ebbed to a near standstill at dusk, has been swallowed by high rise buildings, fleets of cars and battalions of motorbikes fighting for priority.

Fortunately, our taxi driver guided us to the entrance. I recognized it immediately. Before we reached the guardhouse at the gate, a short man with pitch black hair sprang in front of the car. He rushed to open my door and ushered me into the institute.
Pausing in the enormous entry hall, I choked back memories in front of an image of the founder of the country’s environmental movement: President Ho Chi Minh. He is watering a sapling. Beneath it, the engraving reads: “Forest is gold. If we know how to conserve and use it well, it will be very precious”.

Suddenly, Do Tuoc raced up a grand staircase, and a young woman led me, and Anh Thu, a WWF colleague, to a spacious meeting room where we waited for him to return. The large windows opened to the grounds of the complex.

Do Tuoc re-appeared with a notebook and a set of keys to the only air-conditioned room at FIPI, where specimens of the saola are preserved. The saola, a five to eight million year old member of the bovid family, was discovered in May1992, during a joint survey carried out by the Ministry of Forestry (MOF) and WWF in the Vu Quang Nature Reserve near the Lao border in north-central Vietnam.

He told us how he made one of the most spectacular scientific discoveries of the Twentieth Century: “On the last day of the 1992 survey, I went off on my own with a list of the names of village hunters in my hand. In the first two houses, I collected two strange skulls. In the third house I discovered a pair of unusual horns attached to a wooden pillar.

“The first time I saw them, I thought they must be from a new species”, he exclaimed. “The horns looked like those of an Arabian Oryx, which lives in a dry climate. But, the saola lives in humid evergreen forests where it is much cooler and wetter than the desert”, he added.

Do Tuoc dashed off to show the skulls and horns to his research partner, Dr John Mackinnon, who recalled his reaction to the rare find: “I knew it was so ‘wow!’ so ‘new’! That day spawned a wave of exploration and discoveries”.

Between May 1992 and early 1993, Vietnamese scientists collected 20 specimens, including one complete skin. Tissue samples were dispatched to Denmark and the US for testing. In March 1993, the remarkable results revealed that the primitive animal, a relic from the last Ice Age, was not only a new species, but also an entirely new genus in the bovid family, which includes cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes.

Initially dubbed the Vu Quang Ox, the animal was renamed to reflect the nomenclature used by many local communities living in the Annamite range of Vietnam and Laos: saola. Tai and Lao villagers throughout the Annamites say the animal, which was an integral part of their diet and communal ceremonies, was named after the straight parallel posts (sao), which support the spindle (la) part of a spinning wheel. The sturdy posts resemble the saola’s long dark tapered horns. Other ethnic groups such as the Katu, Ta Oi, and Hmong refer to the animal in their own languages.

Budget shortfalls endanger species

“In the early 1990s, villagers living in Vu Quang said they caught around 10-15 saola each year and ate them for food”, Tuoc explained. “Since the new law protecting the saola was introduced in Vietnam, with a big fine and a prison sentence, hunters are hiding the new horns. Sometimes, they even catch small saola and raise them. They don’t release them back into the forest”, he added.

“The most important thing is that saola numbers are very low”, he warned. “So are other species. The tiger is almost extinct, with only around ten animals left in Vietnam in the wild. There are maybe only 70 wild elephants, all living in and near New Economic Zones. Gibbons are also critically endangered. The future is not bright for any of them”.

I placed a 1,000 dong note on the table, pointing to the photo of Ho Chi Minh on one side and a domestic elephant on the other. “Our plans have failed because there is no government money”, Do Tuoc said. “There is no budget for the elephant. We submitted an action plan for the elephant and are still waiting for a response. The first challenge is the shortage of money”.

Do Tuoc emphasized that the government laws are strict, but impossible to enforce without financial support. “Hunters are hiding in the forests and setting thousands of traps, capturing animals for the wildlife trade, which started to increase in the early 1990s. I am worried about the saola’s future in the wild because people trap it a lot, intentionally and accidentally”, he added.

“There are two solutions; one is farming the saola, and the other is to take DNA samples”. He spoke excitedly about the new method of testing leeches’ blood, which stays in the bloodsucker’s systems for up to four months, and which can be used to detect the presence and location of the last animal a leech has fed on.

Nicolas Williamson, a British wildlife ecologist based in Vietnam, collected leeches and sent them to a team of geneticists at the University of Copenhagen. In April 2012, the tests results showed that none of the 21 out of 25 leeches sampled contained saola DNA. However, they did harbour DNA from other mammals, including the dark Annamite muntjac and the Annamite striped rabbit discovered in 1997 and 1999, respectively.

Conservationists hope that leeches collected in 2012 and 2013 throughout the saola’s range will help scientists confirm the presence and whereabouts of the rare ungulate. So far, forest guards have collected 25,000 leeches for DNA testing in Thua Thien Hue and Quang Nam provinces in Vietnam and in eastern Xe Sap NPA in Sekong Province and the Phou Sithone Endangered Species Conservation area in Bolikhamxay Province in Laos.

The “polite animal”

The first photograph of a saola in the wild was taken in 1998 from a camera trap in Pu Mat National Park, Vietnam. A few months later in 1999, the species was recorded by another camera-trap in Lao PDR, in Bolikhamxay Province. Its survival was not confirmed again for 11 years until 2010 when a group of Hmong villagers caught an animal in Bolikhamsay province. The animal died a few days later.

The saola had not attracted so much attention since the capture of a female calf just outside Vu Quang in May 1994. The young saola, estimated to be about four to five months old, weighed 18 kg, one-fifth the size (100 kg) of a large adult saola, was transported in June to FIPI’s botanic gardens. In the first two weeks of care by Do Tuoc and FIPI staff, the juvenile gained four kilos.

The public was spellbound by the striking features of the shy animal with its large facial scent glands and the dark thin stripe down the middle of its back. Its horns were only six centimeters, unlike the unmistakable long straight sweptback horns of a mature saola. Shortly after the female was captured, a large male saola was brought to FIPI from Vu Quang, but died shortly thereafter.

“When the saola were here at FIPI in 1994, the animals were tame and gentle. They showed no fear of people. They died after their digestive systems were disrupted after they were fed a fruit containing small seeds,” Do Tuoc lamented.

Two years later in 1996, a pregnant female saola was held in captivity in Laos in Bolikhamsay province. William Robichaud, Coordinator of the SWG, was fortunate enough to observe the animal for three weeks before it died because of its inadequate diet. Of the experience he recalls: “The most remarkable thing about the animal was her calm nature. The only thing she was afraid of was dogs. Otherwise, she was tame, more so than a village cow”. A Buddhist monk who visited the animal told Robichaud, “we call the saola the polite animal, because it always walks quietly and slowly through the forest”.

Saola stories

“Have you given up hope”? I asked. Do Tuoc stood up and grabbed his chair, swinging it in front of a large map of Vietnam. He stepped onto the seat and pointed to Quang Binh Province.

“We would like to create a protected area here on the border with Laos for the saola”, he proclaimed with exuberance. He stood on the tips of his toes, stretching to his full height to trace a link of forest blocks on the Vietnam/Lao border from Nghe An Province in the north to Quang Nam Province in the south. “I think we have a new chance in Quang Binh”, he added optimistically. “Come, see our saola specimens upstairs”.

We followed him up a flight up steps and into a room of mottled specimens. A male Indochinese tiger held centre stage, most if its hair worn away by time. The main attractions were secured inside two glass enclosures: a well-preserved young female saola and a large male with long sweptback horns.

A small air conditioner droned in the background as I attempted to photograph Tuoc with a saola in the background. I asked if he could unlock the doors so I could avoid the glare of a flash against glass. Panicking, he searched for the keys. Instinctively, I pulled a door open and we burst into laughter. Who knew that one of the country’s most precious national treasures was up for grabs?

Sitting together in front of the display, we commiserated; two seasoned researchers refuse to ever retire or give up hope. He is heading back to the Truong Son (Annamites), and I am off to the Sai Phou Louang, as the mountain range is known in Laos, each in search of the mysterious saola. We promise that two decades will not pass before we meet again, and that when we do, it will be to swap saola success stories.

By Dr Elizabeth Kemf, author of Month of Pure Light: the regreening of Vietnam, is writing a book on the rise and fall of Indochina’s Elephant Kings.

Do Tuoc, Vietnamese scientist who discovered the saola with John Mackinnon in 1992, and WWF consultant, Elizabeth Kemf, at FIPI’s saola exhibition in Hanoi, reminisce about 25 years of collaboration.
© WWF / Elizabeth Kemf
Do Tuoc, Vietnamese scientist who discovered the saola with John Mackinnon in 1992.
© WWF / Elizabeth Kemf
Saola or Vu quang ox (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis); Hanoi, Vietnam.
© David HULSE / WWF