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Saola: a closer look at a new EDGE Focal Species

By on March 2, 2011 in Focal species, Mammals, Uncategorized

One of the new additions to the group of focal EDGE Mammals in urgent need of conservation attention is the saola, a shy and secretive mammal found in Vietnam and Lao PDR that many people have never even heard of. Therefore, George Tyson, our guest writer would like to introduce you to this incredibly unique and critically endangered animal before it becomes too late to save it.

Often referred to as the “Asian unicorn”, the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is one of the world’s rarest and most elusive mammals. Found in the snare-littered forest land on the Annamite Mountains between Vietnam and Lao PDR, this unusual antelope-like bovine is in desperate need of conservation. Classified as critically endangered by the IUCN with only a few dozen individuals thought to survive in the wild, the saola has earned a place amongst EDGE’s Focal Species.

Living in secrecy until its scientific discovery in 1992, the saola has only been recorded a hand full of times. Most photographic evidence is owed to camera traps, and each example that has been found in captivity has never survived long enough for any proper analysis to take place.

The saola has a striking appearance, with long, sharp and slightly curved horns measuring up to half a meter in length defining its morphology. These horns give it a familiarity to North African antelope despite it being more closely related to wild cattle, adding to the controversy surrounding the species’ classification. Placed in the Bovinae sub-family (containing 11 diverse genera of hoofed mammals), and deemed suitably distinct enough to reside solitarily in its own genus, the saola has caused confusion since its first discovery. White vertical stripes cut across its cheeks, and patches dot the nose and chin. It also has what is thought to be the largest maxillary glands of any other mammal species. On the nasal ridge beneath each eye, these glands are covered by a muscular lid, enabling voluntary exposure and secretion of a thick musk-like substance; used either for territorial marking or mating purposes. These unique features are testament to its high level of evolutionary distinctiveness and resulting EDGE score.

The saola’s mysterious nature, the remote forestland that it inhabits, and its reportedly shy disposition means that this species is poorly understood. All that is known is that the small and dense forest patches in which it lives are under considerable threat. Increased human presence has led to degradation and fragmentation of this habitat and worryingly, this is only set to increase as initiatives to improve rural poverty bring rapid infrastructure development cutting through the Ammanites.

The saola is undeniably a one-of-a-kind species. The IUCN states that with no examples found in zoos and almost nothing known about how to maintain them in captivity, extinction of saola in the wild would mean its extinction everywhere.

Raising awareness of the saola and its status is critical, but its time is limited. At best a few hundred survive, but there could be as little as dozens of individuals remaining. Through raising its profile here on EDGE, it is hoped that further investigation and conservation can be inspired to bring this beautifully unique species from the edge of extinction.

If you would like to help EDGE initiate the conservation of the saola and other focal EDGE species you can support the EDGE programme and the work of EDGE Fellows who research and implement the conservation actions for top priority EDGE species.