By Chere Di Boscio
Sometimes, deep in the forests of the Annamite mountains that straddle the borders of Vietnam and Laos, they make a brief appearance. But they know better than to linger – it could cost them their lives. The rare saola has been dubbed ‘the Asian Unicorn’ because its numbers are so low, it’s practically a mythical creature at this point. And its demise is our fault.
The saola came to global attention in 1992 as the first large mammal to be discovered in over 50 years, after surveyors from the Vietnamese Ministry of Forestry and the WWF found skulls of the unknown species in mountain villages. DNA tests indicated this delicate creature, which resembles a deer or antelope, is actually a kind of bovine related to cattle.
But unlike cows, this creature is rare indeed: The WWF estimates that the current saola population ranges from a perilous 10 to several hundred, at most. A 2009 meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) concluded that the species population has dropped precipitously, placing the beautiful saola on the list of critically endangered species.
The reason the saola is disappearing is the same that several other endangered animals are being reduced in number: poaching. Although the saola isn’t particularly sought after by hunters, these small creatures do, however, easily get caught in their indiscriminate snares. Poaching is, unfortunately, the by-product of economic development in Vietnam – the growth of the country’s middle class has driven demand for rare, wild-caught meat. To fulfil that demand, wildlife poachers can set up to 1,000 snares at a time, happy to kill whatever falls into their traps.
The WWF has made huge efforts to save the saola by working with community forest guards in Vietnam, and to date, around 200 illegal hunting camps have been closed and 12,500 snares removed since February 2011. However, according to the WWF, it’s extremely difficult for anti-poaching teams to find and destroy all poaching snares.
It’s probably a better strategy for wildlife conservation groups to educate the Vietnamese about the damage their appetite for meat is wreaking on animals and ecosystems, since at the moment, eating wildlife is seen as ‘impressive’ and brings status and prestige to anyone who consumes animals of the forests.
The price of this caprice has been very high for the saola. Since 1992, the animal has mainly been sighted by scientists with camera traps. One was captured by villagers in Laos in 2010, but it died in captivity before researchers could reach the village. No scientist has yet ever spotted the saola in person.
The habitat of the saola makes the species very difficult to track but also to protect, since it lives in very specific and remote pockets of a mountain range that are very remote, very steep, very wet, and very difficult terrain to access. We can only hope that that helps to preserve the species, at least a little bit, but if you’d like to help to save the saola, please visit here.
All images: WWF