By Jeremy Hance
In 1992, scientists made a spectacular discovery: a large, land mammal (200 pounds) that had somehow eluded science even as humans visited the moon and split the atom. Its discoverers, with WWF and Vietnam's Ministry of Forestry, dubbed the species the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis). Found in the Annamite Mountains in Laos and Vietnam, the saola is a two-horned beautiful bovine that resembles an African antelope and, given its rarity, has been called the Asian unicorn. Since its discovery, scientists have managed to take photos via camera trap of a wild saola (in 1999) and even briefly studied live specimens brought into villages in Laos before they died (in 1996 and again in 2010), however the constant fear of extinction loomed over efforts to save the species. But WWF has announced good news today: a camera trap has taken photos of a saola in an unnamed protected area in Vietnam, the first documentation of the animal in the country in 15 years.
"In Vietnam, the last sighting of a saola in the wild was in 1998," says Dang Dinh Nguyen, Deputy Head of Quang Nam Forest Protection Department and Director of Quang Nam’s Saola Nature Reserve. "This is an historic moment in Vietnam’s efforts to protect our extraordinary biodiversity, and provides powerful evidence of the effectiveness of conservation efforts in critical saola habitat."
In 2011, the Vietnamese government set up the Saola Nature Reserve even though scientists weren't certain how many individuals were left in the country, if any. Until September (when WWF took the camera trap photo) there had been no evidence of a living saola since the brief captive died in 2010.
In both Laos and Vietnam, the saola is most at risk from snares set out by local hunters for other species. Programs have been set up across both countries to combat the snare problem in saola-territory. Other threats include hunting with dogs and habitat loss, especially due to infrastructure projects like roads which open up impenetrable forests to new impacts. Scientists believe the species has at best only a few hundred animals left and maybe only a couple dozen. In fact, according to the IUCN Red List, "Saola numbers may be so low that no viable populations remain."
Still, this doesn't mean conservationists are giving up.
"Since 2011, forest guard patrols in [the area\ have removed more than 30,000 snares from this critical saola habitat and destroyed more than 600 illegal hunters’ camps. Confirmation of the presence of the saola in this area is a testament to the dedicated and tireless efforts of these forest guards," says Van Ngoc Thinh, WWF-Vietnam's Country Director. More....