Last photographed in Laos in 1999, a living Saola has been recorded by camera trap in central Vietnam. Three photographs of the same adult Saola were taken by an automatic camera trap set in a protected area, under a project by the Vietnamese government’s Forest Protection Department and WWF. It shows the animal in early evening, moving along a rocky stream in the forest.
The Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is one the world’s most threatened large mammals, Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. The Saola Working Group of the IUCN SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group; a collaborative effort of 20 people representing 17 organizations is celebrating the announcement. “These are the most important wild animal photographs taken in Asia, and perhaps the world, in more than a decade. The pictures lift us with hope” said William Robichaud, Coordinator of the Saola Working Group.
One of the photos clearly shows the distinctive long horns of an adult Saola. “There is no doubt these are photos of a Saola” said Dr. Tom Gray, a member of the Saola Working Group and Manager of WWF Greater Mekong’s Species, Protected Areas and Wildlife Trade program.
The Saola was first discovered in 1992 by a joint team of surveyors from Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry and WWF, near Vietnam's border with Laos. The team found a skull with unusual horns in a hunter's home and knew it was something extraordinary. The find proved to be the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years.
In the area where the Saola was photographed, WWF’s Preservation of Carbon Sinks and Biodiversity Conservation (CarBi) programme has implemented an innovative law enforcement model in which forest guards are recruited from local communities, and co-managed by WWF and Vietnamese government counterparts. One of their main activities is the collection of poachers’ snares. “The primary threat to Saola is snaring” said Dr. Tom Gray. “These photos are an encouraging indication that the forest guards model is working”.
According to the Saola Working Group, since the forest guard model was first piloted in 2011, forest guard teams have removed more than 30,000 illegal snares in four protected areas in the Saola’s range; two areas in Vietnam and two in Laos. “The sad thing is that all this snaring and hunting is driven mainly by Asia’s commercial wildlife trade, yet Saola is one of the few animals in the region without a high price on its head” said William Robichaud.
“The photos are great news” said Dr. Barney Long, member of the Saola Working Group and the Director of Species Conservation Program at WWF-US; “but they in no way mean Saola is secure. In the short-term, we need to expand the forest guards to other areas in both Vietnam and Laos, and in the long-term, support the governments of Laos and Vietnam to strengthen their own protected area management and intensify their law enforcement efforts. Collaboration will be key.”
WWF and the Saola Working Group will mobilize a team to return to the site as soon as possible, to gather information about the habitat and topography of the site. “We know so little about the ecology of Saola that we’ll use this opportunity to learn as much as we can about this elusive species. It’s very exciting” said Dr. Tom Gray.
The Saola Working group has an innovative plan to recover the species, which includes protection from snaring and hunting in the wild; building a young group of dedicated Vietnamese and Laotian Saola conservationists, and starting a captive breeding programme.
For further information:
William Robichaud, Coordinator, IUCN SSC Saola Working Group: Saolawg@gmail.com