The Saola is found only in the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam. It is one of the most enigmatic animals in the world, and also one of the most threatened. Since the species’ scientific discovery in 1992, it has declined to a status of Critically Endangered and is now one of the most endangered mammals in the world. There are few anaimals as phylogentically distinctive and so threatened with extinction, yet with so little conservation attention.
The Saola is categorized by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered, the last stop before extinction. Its decline is due mainly to intense levels of hunting and snaring in its range, for animals valued in traditional Chinese medicine and to a lesser extent the bushmeat trade). Paradoxically, Saola is not a target species; the Chinese never knew the animal, and so Saola is unknown in the traditional pharmacopeia. Tragically, this magnificent species is being driven to extinction largely as a by-catch of hunting efforts targeting other species. But this also presents an opportunity for its conservation. No poachers are racing conservationists to the last Saola, as they are the last rhinos and tigers in some areas. Thus there is a realistic chance to save Saola, but action is needed soon.The most pressing priority is reduction of snares and illegal hunters in areas where Saola occur. If hunting levels can be reduced, the species’ prospects are good, since habitat remains relatively plentiful.
Alongside the main conservation initiatives a group of zoo professionals working as members of the EAZA Cattle Taxon Advisory Group and a part of the EAZA South-East Asia Campaign are investigating how conservation breeding, captive management and intensive veterinary care may support Saola conservation.
I am co-ordinating the production of the Saola Veterinary Guidelines which will be an invaluable tool should another Saola ever be found or caught alive and veterinary care be required.