Two decades after the discovery of an ungulate species called the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), this rare animal is sliding towards extinction because of intensive hunting pressure and poor reserve management. This warning is heeded by the Saola Working Group (SWG) of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
The Saola was discovered in 1992 by a joint team from Vietnam's Ministry of Forestry and WWF surveying the forests of Vu Quang, near Vietnam's border with Laos. he team found a skull with unusual long, straight horns in a hunter's home. The find proved to be the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years, and one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.
Twenty years later, little is still known about the Saola's ecology or behaviour. In 2010, villagers in the central Laos province of Bolikhamxay captured a Saola, but the animal died several days later. Prior to that, the last confirmed record of a Saola in the wild was in 1999 from camera-trap photos in Bolikhamxay.
It's greatest threat is from illegal hunting, mostly through snaring. Hunters set the snares to catch other animals, like Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor), Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi) and civets, which are largely destined for the lucrative wildlife trade driven by traditional medicine demand in China and restaurant and food markets in Vietnam and Laos.
Since the discovery of the Saola, Vietnam and Laos have established a network of protected areas in the animal's core range and some reserves are pursuing innovative approaches to tackle rampant poaching. In the Saola Nature Reserve in Vietnam's Thua Thien Hue Province, a new approach to forest guard co-management is delivering positive results. Since February 2011, the team of forest guards patrolling the reserve have removed more than 12,500 snares and close to 200 illegal hunting and logging camps.
The Saola is an icon for biodiversity in the Annamite mountain range that runs along the border of Vietnam and Laos. In addition to the discovery of the Saola, two new species of deer, the Large-antlered Muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) and the Truong Son Muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis), were uncovered in the Annamite's rugged, evergreen forests in 1994 and 1997 respectively. Efforts to save the Saola have reached a greater level of urgency since another of Vietnam's iconic species, the Vietnamese Javan Rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus), was confirmed extinct in 2011 after the battle to save the last individual was lost to poachers.
The Saola has made it to its twentieth anniversary, but it won't have many more anniversaries unless urgent action is taken," says Chris Hallam, WCS-Laos' Conservation Planning Advisor.