Inspiring conservation of Saola and other endemic species in Lao PDR

The Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensisis) is probably the most endangered large mammal in the Indo-Burma region. For success in Saola conservation, immediate site-based actions are required to prevent rapid extinction, as well as longer-term initiatives to ensure the species’ survival in perpetuity. Seeking to meet these goals, this project is being implemented by King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in collaboration with the IUCN SSC Saola Working Group in the newly-designated Phou Sithon Endangered Species Conservation Area, Bolikhamxay Province, Lao PDR (one of the only protected areas in the Key Biodiversity Area "Eastern Bolikhamxay Mountains", covering 14,200 ha of evergreen forest), with funding from a Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)/IUCN small grant.

Community mapping in the village of Phonmouang, a key village adjacent to Phou Sithon, Borlikhamxay Province in  Lao PDR in 2014

Following a Saola’s capture and death in Bolikhamxay in 2010, interviews in the villages around Phou Sithon, led by WCS and supported in part by CEPF, documented several other recent encounters with Saola reported by local residents. This is probably the highest concentration of recently recorded sightings in the area over the past decade. Consequently, Phou Sithon has emerged as one of the highest priority sites for Saola conservation.

The two key interconnected priorities for successful Saola conservation in Phou Sithon are improving information on where Saola occur, and longer-term positive engagement with the local residents. These priorities will enable communities to become supporters of Saola conservation. There are significant challenges to realizing these objectives, the primary problem being that detecting Saola in the wild is very difficult. It is a solitary species which occurs at very low density in remote forests with steep terrain. However, it is possible to find Saola through the placement of camera traps. Since the Saola’s discovery in this region, camera-trapping efforts have only been very recently attempted with an intensity commensurate with the species’ low detection probability.

This CEPF project started with discussions and interviews with local villagers, collecting updated information on recent Saola records in and around the area, as well as records of Serow (Capricornis milneedwardsii) and Sambar (Rusa unicolor), which are also now quite rare. This material is being used to quantify the characteristics of likely Saola habitat, and to enhance camera trap placement for this study and also hopefully future ones.

Having worked extensively in the region, the project field coordinator Mr Chanthasone Phommachanh has established good relationships with the Phou Sithon community residents – a critical factor for gathering accurate indigenous ecological knowledge. With community members acting as guides to likely Saola sites, Chanthasone is working together with them to deploy 80 camera-traps, which will be active for at least eight months.

One of the most valuable aspects of this project is the regular long-term teamwork with village collaborators. It is through this daily sharing of tasks, meals, difficulties and accomplishments that relationships are built, and where real influence can begin. This is enabling the shifting of community attitudes, and has created allies for Saola conservation as well as for other rare ungulates.

The CEPF-funded project brings opportunities for coordination with another project in Phou Sithon, supported by the MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with WCS and the Saola Working Group. This project conducted intensive collection of leeches in Phou Sithon, in an attempt to confirm that leeches can be used to detect Saola, through analysis for remnant Saola DNA. There is a tremendous opportunity to compare, in the same time and space, the multiple methods used to detect Saola: through leech collection, village interviews, and intensive camera-trapping.

The main risk faced by this project is that Saola will not be detected by camera-trapping, and that there will be no other confirmed records of its existence and habitats. However, preliminary data collection has already yielded positive results.

Dr George A. Gale, the Head of the Conservation Ecology Lab at KMUTT said, "During our recent visit to Phou Sithon, Dr Robert Steinmetz (WWF Thailand) and I were very impressed by the level of cooperation & overall good will between the local community and Mr. Chanthasone. Furthermore, preliminary results from the camera trapping strongly suggests the site is still very rich in biodiversity, which leaves me much more hopeful for the future of wildlife in this special site."

The initial information on Saola and other ungulates yielded from villager interviews and analysis is extremely beneficial for facilitating improved conservation. This CEPF-supported project has provided an invaluable opportunity for CEPF to advance the conservation of globally significant biodiversity in Indo-Burma.

About the grantee
Conservation Ecology Program (CEG), Division of Natural Resources Management, School of Bioresources and Technology, King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT), Bangkok, Thailand. CEG was established in 2005. The program currently consists of 3 faculty researchers, 5 research associates/assistants and 19 graduate students. CEG research focuses primarily on ecology and conservation of mammals and birds. The CEG team has authored or co-authored more than 60 international and regional peer-reviewed publications since 2005. Researchers from CEG along with a researcher from WWF Thailand and an outside expert are supervising Mr Chanthasone Phommachanh, who is currently a MSc. student with CEG.

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