The latest saola on the planet



by LORENZO CIOTTI

The latest saola on the planet

The saola is found only in a small area between Laos and Vietnam, in the Vu Qang reserve. The species is threatened by the degradation of the forests in the region and by the hunting practiced by the local populations, who greatly appreciate the saola meat.

Saola feed on small leafy plants and shrubs near rivers. The saola is about 85 cm tall at the withers and weighs 90 kg. The coat is dark brown, with a white stripe running along the back. The legs are dark in color with white spots near the hooves.

Other vertical white stripes are found on the cheeks, above the eyes, on the nose and on the chin. Each specimen has a pair of horns, slightly curved backwards, which reach half a meter in length. According to local populations, the saola move in small groups of 2-3 specimens.

The animal is mainly known by researchers through images taken with camera traps placed in the jungle. The saola became known to the scientific community only in May 1992, following the discovery in a village in the Annamite mountains in Vietnam of some pairs of horns belonging to an animal unknown at the time.

The chromosomal analysis has allowed to establish that the saola belongs to a new genus of ruminants, related to the cow, the kudu, the eland and the anoa, and located in the subfamily Bovinae.

The saola is currently considered to be critically endangered

The saola is currently considered to be critically endangered.

Its restrictive habitat requirements and aversion to human proximity are likely to endanger it through habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. Saola suffer losses through local hunting and the illegal trade in furs, traditional medicines, and for use of the meat in restaurants and food markets.

They also sometimes get caught in snares that have been set to catch animals raiding crops, such as wild boar, sambar, and muntjac. More than 26,651 snares have so far been removed from saola habitats by conservation groups.

Saola are shot for their meat, but hunters also gain high esteem in the village for the production of a carcass. Due to the scarcity, the locals place much more value on the saola than more common species. Because the people in this area are traditional hunters, their attitude about killing the saola is hard to change; this makes conservation difficult.

The Saola Working Group was formed by the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group, in 2006 to protect the saolas and their habitat. This coalition includes about 40 experts from the forestry departments of Laos and Vietnam, Vietnam's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, Vinh University, biologists and conservationists from Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

A group of scientists from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology in central Hanoi, within the Institute of Biotechnology, investigated a last resort effort of conserving the species by cloning, an extremely difficult approach even in the case of well-understood species.