Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis)
|Also known as:||Vu Quang Ox|
|Size||Body length: c. 150 cm (2)|
Shoulder height: 80 - 90 cm (2)
|Weight||80 - 100 kg (3)|
- Discovered in 1992, the saola is considered "the greatest animal find of recent times".
- The saola is only found in a small area of forest on the border between Vietnam and the Laos.
- Photographed in the wild only three times, very little is known about the saola.
- With its small range, the saola is threatened by habitat loss, hunting and snaring.
- Previous attempts to keep saola in captivity have all failed, and none remain in captivity anywhere in the world today.
Classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix I of CITES (4).
The astonishing discovery of this unusual, long-horned bovid in 1992 is generally considered to be the greatest animal find of recent times (3) (5). Not only is it the first large mammal to be discovered since the Kouprey (Bos sauveli) in 1936, but it is also so different from any previously known species that a separate genus was constructed for it (2) (6). Both males and females have long, slender horns that are up to 52 centimetres in length, almost straight but with a slight curve backwards, and which are thought to be used for protection against predators and possibly in intraspecific conflict (2) (3). The short glossy coat ranges from a rich chestnut-brown to almost black, generally being paler on the belly than the back, with a thin black line extending down the spine and white patches on the side of the neck of some individuals (2) (3). The tail is split into three bands of colour - brown at the top, cream in the middle, and black towards the end, tipped in a fluffy tassel (2). A cream-coloured band marks the rump, and white bands encircle the lower legs, just above the hooves (3). The brown face has a striking pattern of white spots and slashes, including long, thin stripes above each eye, giving the appearance of eyebrows (2).
The entire range of the saola lies within a narrow area of forests along the northern and central Annamite mountain range, on the border between Vietnam and the Laos (2) (6). While most records come from south of the Song Ca River in Vietnam, populations to the north have also been found (2).
The saola typically inhabits climatically wet, evergreen, broadleaf forests, usually between 400 to 1,000 meters (7). Areas of low human disturbance are preferred (8). The species appears to occupy higher elevations during the wet season when upper streams have plenty of water, and lowlands during the dry season when the upper mountain streams have dried up (2).
Due to the saola’s relatively recent discovery and the difficulty of detecting it, little is known about this enigmatic species’ ecology or life history. It has been photographed in the wild on only three occasions, and no biologist has ever reported seeing the animal in the wild. Much of what we know about the saola has come from information provided by local people in its range. They report that the species is generally solitary, although there have been a few reports that they sometimes travels in small groups, perhaps during the breeding season (8). Most of the information on reproduction comes from a single pregnant female held briefly in captivity in northern Laos (it died after just a few weeks). Calculations made from the size of the female’s foetus, together with all other data to date, suggest that the saola is a seasonal breeder, mating between late August and mid-November in Laos. If this is the case, births would coincide with the onset of the monsoon, somewhere around April, May and June in northern Laos (2).
This single captive is also the source of much of the behavioural information about the saola. It appeared primarily diurnal or crepuscular, with activity often concentrated early in the morning and late in the afternoon (2). The saola browses on, at least, the fleshy herb layer of riverside vegetation (8).
After its relatively recent discovery, the saola is now the focus of attention for another reason - its grave danger of extinction. The species has a small range where it is increasingly threatened by habitat loss and, especially, hunting and snaring (1). Hunters intensively pursue animals valued in traditional East Asian ‘medicine’ and the local bushmeat trades, and although the saola itself apparently has limited value and is not pursued aggressively, it is killed incidentally in the pursuit of other species. In the past, hunters have also tried to capture the saola because of the intense interest in this new and strange species (3). Sadly, the more than a dozen saola known to have been captured and held in captivity were all poorly kept, and with the exception of two that were quickly released into the wild, all died within days or weeks or, at most, five months of their capture (2) (7). None are in captivity anywhere in the world today. As of November 2010, the most recent confirmed record of the species was an adult male captured by villagers in northern Laos in August 2010, and held by them for several days before it, too, died (9).
Habitat destruction poses another threat, with forests being lost and fragmented by infrastructure development (such as roads and dams), agricultural encroachment and mineral mining (2) (7). In Laos, the threat of hunting is exacerbated by the creation of logging roads, which fragment the remaining forest patches and make wildlife more accessible to hunters (1) (2). In particular, Vietnam’s new Ho Chi Minh Road down the length of the Annamites is cause for deep concern, since it slices through the length of the species’ range in Vietnam and has feeder roads branching into Laos (1).
The saola is found in a number of protected areas in which conservation initiatives have been implemented. In Vietnam, in the Vu Quang Nature Reserve, where the saola was first discovered, the Ministry of Forestry has cancelled its logging operations (8), and surveys and other conservation activities have also been conducted in the Pu Huong Nature Reserve, in cooperation with Vietnam's Vinh University (7). Furthermore, within the Pu Mat National Park, many surveys on the distribution and ecology of the saola were carried out between 1998 and 2003, as part of the Social Forestry and Nature Conservation project (7). The Ministry of Forestry in Vietnam has also issued a ban on further capture, trade, or holding of this rare animal, given its apparent inability to survive captivity (2).
In Laos, the Nam Theun 2 dam project provides US $1 million per year for 30 years for protection of the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area (NNT NPA), the largest protected area with the saola in Laos or Vietnam. The Wildlife Conservation Society is working with provincial government partners and industry to protect the saola in key areas north and south of NNT NPA, which are not in national protected areas (10).
In 2006, the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group established a Saola Working Group, to bring more focused attention to saola conservation (11). The WWF Greater Mekong Programme has also been actively involved in the conservation of the saola in Vietnam, setting up initiatives like the Vu Quang Project, which endeavoured to improve the conservation management and support the livelihoods of local people in the area where the saola was discovered (5). WWF has also been active in helping provincial authorities establish three new adjoining protected areas for the saola in the southern part of its range. The first two of these areas were established in 2010. In collaboration with WWF and provincial governments, the Darwin Initiative is, until 2012, supporting research on patterns of hunting and their impacts on saola in the same landscape. In addition, in 2003, WWF produced a documentary showing the plight of the saola, which was shown on Vietnamese television (6), and a research programme on the saola, undertaken by WWF, is ongoing (8).
Despite these conservation efforts, however, the future of this enigmatic and beautiful bovid remains uncertain, and an ongoing push to save it now ensues. There are few wildlife species in the world, if any, that share saola’s combination of biological distinctiveness, degree of endangerment, and modest level of conservation attention. We are now at a point in history where a small window remains to save this remarkable animal (10).
To find out more about the saola and its conservation, see:
IUCN Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group - Saola Working Group:
Wildlife Conservation Society Asia Program:
WWF Greater Mekong:
Save the Saola:
EDGE of Existence:
- Crepuscular: active at dusk and/or dawn.
- Diurnal: active during the day.
- Genus: a category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
- Intraspecific: arising or occurring within a species.
IUCN Red List (December, 2010)
Ultimate Ungulate (December, 2010)
Animal Diversity Web (December, 2010)
CITES (December, 2010)
WWF Greater Mekong (December, 2010)
WWF - Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) (December, 2010)
- Hardcastle, J., Cox, S., Dao, N.T. and Johns, A.G. (2004) Rediscovering the Saola. WWF Indochina Programme, SFNC Project, Pu Mat National Park, Hanoi.
- Long, B. (2007) Pers. comm.
BBC News – Rare antelope-like mammal caught in Asia (September, 2010)
- Robichaud, W. (2010) Pers. comm.
- Saola Working Group (2009). From Plans to Action: Proceedings of the First Meeting of the Saola Working Group. IUCN Lao PDR Country Programme and the Saola Working Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group, Vientiane, Laos PDR.