Less than two decades after it was discovered by science, the saola, an enigmatic antelope that lives in the remote valleys of the Annamite Mountains along the border of Vietnam and Laos, is on the brink of extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said today.
© WWF-Canon / David Hulse
“We are at a point in history when we still have a small but rapidly closing window of opportunity to conserve this extraordinary animal,” said William Robichaud, coordinator of the Saola Working Group, set up by IUCN’s Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group.
“That window has probably already closed for another species of wild cattle, the kouprey, and experts at this meeting are determined that the Saola not be next,” he said.
The Saola Working Group includes staff of the forestry departments of Laos and Vietnam, Vietnam’s Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, and Vinh University, as well as biologists and conservationists from non-government organizations, including the Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF. Experts from the Smithsonian Institution and Gilman Conservation International also joined the meeting.
The group met in Vientiane, Laos, last month, and agreed that saola numbers appear to have declined sharply since its discovery in 1992, when it was already rare and restricted to a small range, IUCN said.
“Today, the saola’s increasing proximity to extinction is likely paralleled by only two or three other large mammal species in Southeast Asia, such as the Javan rhinoceros…The situation is compounded by the fact that there are no populations of saola held in zoos,” IUCN added.
“The animal’s prominent white facial markings and long tapering horns lend it a singular beauty, and its reclusive habits in the wet forests of the Annamites an air of mystery,” said Barney Long, of the IUCN Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group.
“Saola have rarely been seen or photographed, and have proved difficult to keep alive in captivity. None is held in any zoo, anywhere in the world. Its wild population may number only in the dozens, certainly not more than a few hundred.”
The saola is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which means it faces “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.”
“With none in zoos and almost nothing known about how to maintain them in captivity, for saola, extinction in the wild would mean its extinction everywhere, with no possibility of recovery and reintroduction.”
“With none in zoos and almost nothing known about how to maintain them in captivity, for saola, extinction in the wild would mean its extinction everywhere, with no possibility of recovery and reintroduction,” IUCN said.
The Vientiane meeting identified snaring and hunting with dogs, to which the saola is especially vulnerable, as the main direct threats to the species.
“Experts at the meeting emphasized that the saola cannot be saved without intensified removal of poachers’ snares and reduction of hunting with dogs in key areas of the Annamite forests,” IUCN said. “Improved methods to detect Saola in the wild and radio tracking to understand the animal’s conservation needs are needed, according to the biologists.
“In addition, there needs to be more awareness in [Laos], Vietnam and the world conservation community of the perilous status of this species and markedly increased donor support for saola conservation.”
IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, with more than 1,000 government and NGO members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in 160 countries. Its headquarters are in Switzerland. The organization works on biodiversity, climate change, energy, human livelihoods and greening the world economy by supporting scientific research, managing field projects all over the world, and bringing governments, NGOs, the UN and companies together to develop policy, laws and best practice.