In search of secret wildlife Part II: The saola

Annamite Mountains © Chris Scarffe

By |2021-10-13T11:25:37+00:00July 8th, 2021|Asian Species, Captive Breeding, Conservation Optimism, In search of secret wildlife, Southeast Asia|Comments Off on In search of secret wildlife Part II: The saola

Continuing our ‘In search of secret wildlife’ series, following our blogpost on lost fishes, Nina Seale tells the story of a search to find one of Earth’s rarest large mammals, and how conservation can take action to bring individual species back from the brink of extinction.

In our previous blogpost, we explored our partner Shoal’s search for the lost fishes, a campaign to find the world’s top 10 ‘most wanted’ fishes.

However, Shoal is not our only partner looking to reclaim elusive species from assumed extinction. In 2020, Synchronicity Earth’s Asian Species Programme took on an exciting new partner preparing to launch the most extensive search for saola since its disappearance (it was last recorded by a camera trap in 2013).

Despite being roughly the size of a big dog, with very long, straight horns, this inhabitant of the Annamite Mountains of Lao PDR and Vietnam is a symbol for the plight of the Annamite ecosystem which, like many of the remaining biodiversity hotspots of Southeast Asia, has been degraded by deforestation and poaching for the wildlife trade.

Saola is endemic (unique to the region) to the Annamite Mountains across Lao PDR and Vietnam. Image: Saola Foundation

But the Saola Foundation are planning to launch an unprecedented search to rediscover saola, as it is still thought to remain in the Annamite Mountains, but probably with fewer than 100 left. They plan to form an elite tracking team who will be recruited from local communities in the saola’s range and trained how to distinguish signs of saola (i.e., tracks and dung) from other species. If these signs are found, DNA analysis will confirm any dung samples and then the foundation plan to use detection dogs in field searches to cover large areas.

“When we find the saola, we will show the world there is still hope for wildlife. And hope is what changes the world.” Steve Burns, Chair of the Saola Foundation

Saola was last recorded by a camera trap image taken in 2013. Image © WCS Lao

What’s next?

A species rediscovery is an incredible moment, causing ripples of excitement and new hope from the research team through local communities,  often creating national and international headlines. With such a charismatic creature who has been unseen for so long, if/when the saola is rediscovered (and the Saola Foundation are quite confident!), it will undoubtedly gain the world’s attention.

But how do conservationists secure the future of a species whose numbers have declined so much that they disappeared? When only a few individuals remain of a species, what hope is there?

Quite a lot, actually. This is where sharing stories of Con