New hope for survival for elusive saola

WWF 14 Apr 11;

Quang Nam, Vietnam: Indochina’s elusive saola, a recently discovered and critically endangered relative of antelopes and cattle, now has new hope for survival with the establishment of a dedicated nature reserve in the province today.

Quang Nam’s People Committee today agreed to the Forestry Protection Department establishing a Saola Natural Reserve in the Annamite mountains along the border of Viet Nam and Laos.

The Saola, described as a primitive member of the bovine family which includes cattle, sheep and antelopes, was discovered only in 1992 by a joint WWF and Vietnam Department of Forestry survey.

Threatened by illegal hunting with snares and dogs for its horns, the current population of saola is thought be to a few hundred at maximum and possibly only a few dozen at a minimum. None have survived in captivity.

Since the species discovery, WWF has worked closely with Vietnamese scientists, protected area staff and rangers and local communities, to understand the species population status and ecological requirements; identify the threats to the Saola and implement conservation actions to reverse its decline.

New reserve creates corridor

In response to the alarming status of the species in the wild, WWF Vietnam has worked with Vietnam’s authorities and agencies to promote the establishment of Saola Nature Reserve in Quang Nam, the Saola Nature Reserve in Thua Thien Hue and to extend Bach Ma National Park.

“The establishment of this new Saola Nature Reserve shows a strong commitment by the Vietnamese Government and Quang Nam Province in the conservation of this highly threatened endemic species,” said Ms. Tran Minh Hien, Country Director of WWF Vietnam.

“This new reserve will create a biodiversity corridor connecting the East of Vietnam to West side of Xe Sap National Park in Laos.”

Protection of the Saola population in this landscape is the highest priority for WWF and provincial authorities. Teams of WWF Forest Guards and FPD rangers are patrolling the nature reserves on a daily basis and have removed thousands of snares and destroyed many illegal hunting camps within the first few months of this new cooperative enforcement programme.

The Saola Natural Reserve in Quang Nam is located in an area where the highest point is 1,298 meters characterised by narrow valleys and water falls which creates ideal habitat for Saola. The establishment of the Nature Reserve will promote the conservation of lowland tropical forest ecosystems in the Annamite mountains, which contain many globally threatened species.

“We believe that, with the guidance from the People’s Committee, related local Departments and the cooperation with WWF, the Management Board will carry out the Saola’s conservation well which will not only help improve the Saola’s survival but also have long term value in developing and maintaining the biodiversity of the area.” said Mr Dang Dinh Nguyen, Director of Quang Nam Provincial Forest Protection Department and also the Acting Director of the Saola Nature Reserve.

'Asian Unicorn' Reserve Created to Protect Mysterious Species
Andrea Mustain LiveScience 14 Apr 11;

A new protected area designed to save one of Earth's most mysterious and elusive creatures has been established in a lush, mountainous region of Vietnam, officials announced today.

The creature, the saola (known colloquially as the "Asian unicorn") is a small, horned animal that resembles a strange goat-antelope hybrid, but is more closely related to a kind of wild cow.

"It's a very beautiful forest ungulate, and really looks like nothing else in Asia," said Barney Long, manager of the Asian species conservation program at the conservation group WWF and a key figure behind the creation of the newly established Saola Natural Reserve, which covers an area about three times the size of Manhattan along the Vietnam-Laos border.

Long said saola first got their mythical nickname a year or so ago — in spite of the fact that the animals have more than one horn. [Related: The World's Freakiest Looking Animals.]

"They obviously have two horns," Long said, laughing, "but it is a cylindrical horn and pretty straight, so if you look at it from the side, it looks a bit like it has one horn."

However, it was chiefly the animal's elusive nature that earned it the fairytale name, Long told OurAmazingPlanet.

"It's so rare to see that it would almost be like seeing a unicorn," he said.

Storybook beasts

Indeed, scientists only discovered the critically endangered species in 1992, making the saola one of the last large mammals discovered on the planet, and one whose population may number in the few hundreds.

Even when Vietnamese scientists first identified the new species, it was only through skulls that villagers showed them in the isolated region of the Annamite Mountains where saola live, an area fit for fairytale creatures. Waterfalls festooned with vines and orchids tumble down steep slopes covered with evergreen rainforests, countless streams clatter over rocky beds, and palms as tall as a man crowd the steamy forest floor.

Adding to the allure and mystery of saola, any creatures taken alive die after just a few weeks in captivity.

Just last year, villagers in Laos captured a male saola. It was the first confirmed sighting of the species in a decade. But the creature died a few days later.

Long said scientists think there are three reasons behind the saola's bizarre and fatal reaction to captivity.

"When they're in captivity they seem to act extremely tame, and they're very open to having people come up to them and touch them," Long said, but explained that the docile behavior is actually a sign of extreme stress. "The animal is freaking out," he said.

In addition, the animals may be injured when captured and are likely fed things — rice, bananas, grass — that aren't part of their natural diet.

Accidental victim

Although saola don't appear to be targeted directly for hunting, they are inadvertent victims in snares set for other wild animals — the wild meat trade, including tiger meat, is big business in Vietnam's restaurants.

Conservation organizations and scientists from around the planet are working to design a method to better study and understand the rare creatures, Long said, and are urging authorities in the region to crack down on poaching.

Today's announcement establishes the fourth protected area in suspected saola range, and Vietnamese officials said the new park is intended to protect not only the Asian unicorn, but to save the other unique species that dwell there.

Long, who spent many years trudging through the Annamite Mountains' wet, tropical forests, said despite the discomfort, heat and dampness, the region is unrivaled in its biodiversity. "It really is an amazing place," he said.