The Polite and Serene Saola
We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquita is preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.
“We call the saola the polite animal because it always walks quietly and slowly through the forest.”
~ Buddhist Monk
The Saola, also called the Asian Unicorn, has existed for 18 million years since the ice age, but scientists only discovered it in 1992. It is ranked among the most spectacular findings of the 20th century.
Despite this, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists this bovine animal as critically endangered. This is because the saola are often bycatch of illegal poachers, and the number of saola killed through illegal poaching is unknown.
From May 1992 to early 1993, some 20 pairs of saola horns were captured. One complete skin was found which was stuffed and mounted for exhibition at Hanoi’s Forestry Inventory and Planning Institute (FIPI).
No scientist has ever seen a saola in the wild. Globally, the saola only lives on the Annamite mountains across the border between Vietnam and Laos.
As of 2021, with the Lao Government’s acknowledgment, the Rainforest Trust collaborated with Asian Arks to conserve some 133,000 acres of land from the Khoun Xe Nong Ma (KXNM), a Key Biodiversity and National Protected Area in the Annamite mountain range.
The KXNM has among the highest number of indigenous species or primevals of any ecoregion on the planet. An ecoregion is an area filled with geographically distinct species that share natural communities. They thrive in the environmental conditions within the area. KXNM is among the last undisturbed forest stretches in the region.
Scientists first discovered the saola in 1992, when a team from Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry (MOF) and the WWF visited the Vu Quang Nature Reserve in north-central Vietnam to survey animals. They discovered many unknown fish and other creatures.
But on their last day, Vietnamese biologist Dr. Do Tuoc decided to separate from the group and visited the homes of all the hunters in the area, armed with a list of their names and addresses.
In the first two houses, Dr. Tuoc discovered two unusual wild animal skulls. Many hunters in this area use wild animal skulls to adorn the interior roofs of indigenous peoples’ ceremonial houses. They believe these skulls are vessels of their souls.
In the third house, Dr. Tuoc found a pair of unusual horns attached to a wooden pillar. They resembled the horns of the Arabian oryx, except that they were about 10 inches smaller.
Dr. Tuoc rejoined the group and showed his findings to his research partner, Dr. John Mackinnon. Mackinnon said the saola “spawned a new wave of exploration and discoveries.”
Despite this, 29 years later, scientists know very little about the saola. As of 2019, they have only seen the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) fleetingly in the wild four times, through camera traps, and no saola are seen in zoos.
Observed in captivity
Only local people have seen saola in the wild. They enabled scientists to observe two live saolas in captivity. The first one was a young female calf that was about four months old when captured in 1994. The calf was brought to Hanoi’s 3-hectare FIPI botanic garden. Under Dr. Tuoc and the FIPI staff’s care, the animal gained weight within two weeks, but died soon after, likely due to parasitic liver flukes.
Two years later in 1996, local hunters captured a pregnant female saola and brought it to Bolikhamxay province, Laos. William Robichaud, Coordinator of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, Saola Working Group (SWG), named the animal Martha.
When Martha arrived her right eye was injured and she had minor gashes. Her right rear leg was also injured, perhaps due to a catch trap. She was examined by a field veterinarian and given topical medications and antibiotic injections. She had mild pneumonia for which she was given antibiotic tablets.
Martha’s vocalizations were through soft mono bleating. She bleated three times. Once, she bleated twice between 5-second pauses. Another time, she bleated twice between 1-second pauses. The third time, she bleated once. She was fed fresh vegetables three times a day, and her pen was washed and swept daily. She had a plastic pan of drinking water, and was given some salt.
Robichaud was taken by Marsha’s mystique, grace, beauty, and circumspect nature. Her most surprising feature was that she was tame with humans. The locals had the same observation. One local said the saola would “always step slowly and quietly through the forest,” and they are not willful or volatile. However, the saola feared dogs.
In 1995 Hmong tribesmen in a different part of Bolikharnxay captured two saola (adult and juvenile males) that were so tame, the Hmong kept them as pets for 2 weeks. When the Hmong tried to walk them, the animal was calm, tame, and slow-moving.
Martha readily ate from Robichaud’s hand, and also allowed him to caress and pat her. She was groomed, and interested in her surroundings. For example, she would stretch her neck to sniff a hand. Her feces and urine appeared healthy. However, she failed to thrive. Robichaud only realized Martha was pregnant after she died three weeks later, perhaps due to an inadequate diet.
A shy bovine
What was learned from these encounters with the saola was that it is shy. Although it is part of the species of water buffaloes and cattle, physically it seems to more closely resemble a deer. It is large, weighing some 80 – 100 kg, and is dark brown in hue. It’s face has attractive white markings that are actually pored skin nodules. It has a chocolate brown nose.
The saola is one of the rarest large mammals in the world and the first large mammal that was new to science in more than 50 years. Both the male and female have horns that are gracefully parallel, reaching 20 inches in length at full growth. When the saola raises its head, its horns rest on its back. The horns had many scratches, leading scientists to conclude that they were probably used to rub soil and plant life to induce social or sexual activity.
Their large facial maxillary scent glands are used to mark their territory.
Each gland has a muscular lid that can be raised and closed like an eyelid. When raised, an adult female secretes a powerful, aromatic paste substance to attract a mate.
In 2010, a group of Hmong villagers in Bolikhamxay province, Laos, captured a third saola, but it died a few days later. Two camera photos of a saola were taken in 1999. A third saola was seen on camera in 2013. There was a fourth photo, but the year it was taken is unspecified.
Learning about the saola
Knowledge of the saola is culled through dead samples found in the homes of legal hunters, camera trapping, and interviews with people who live in the area and have seen them accidentally.
Biologists have also seen some bycatch saola from illegal poaching. These bycatch saola can’t be counted, which is why the IUCN can’t come up with a specific number of saolas that live in the wild. Also, because no scientist has observed the saola in the wild, little is known about how the animal behaves, how it uses its habitat, what its distribution is, and what is its ecology.
A Research on Habitat by Laotian students
In 2017, a group of students in Laos, led by Chanthasone Phommachanh, and including Dusit Ngoprasert, Robert Steinmetz, Tommaso Savini, and George A. Gale, decided to learn more about the saola by studying its habitat.
Background of researchers
Ngoprasert, Savini and Gale were students of the Conservation Ecology Program, King Mongkut’s University of Technology in Bangkhu. Chanthasone Phommachanh was also affiliated with the 22Saola Working Group, and the Species Survival Commission’s Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group in Vientiane,
Laos. Robert Steinmetz came from 44World Wide Fund for Nature in Bangkok, Thailand.
The scientists learned that saolas are usually seen in the Phou Sithon Endangered Species Conservation Area (PST), in Bolikhamxay Province on the northern Annamite Mountains of Laos. The PST became a conservation area on August 2010. Some 10 villages are located along its border. The villagers provided much information about the saola in the wild.
Phommachanh’s team approached the village headmen in 2017 to ask which villagers saw the Saola in its habitat. They were given a list of 540 homes from all 10 villages. Among them they visited 339.
The methodology to determine whether a person was a credible source for information was:
- They determined who were familiar with the forest and the general wildlife, even if they never saw a saola. The answers helped them understand how the villagers used the forest.
- Phommachanh’s team asked the village headmen which local people saw the Saola in the field.
- They listed down standards to determine if the people were credible sources such as:
- They asked those who saw the saola to describe the physical animal and its behavioral characteristics.
- They asked the person to describe other ungulates (diverse large animals with hooves) that live in the PST. This gave them a context to be sure they could discern a saola from other ungulates.
- They asked open-ended questions to get longer answers from people who observed the saola
- They sought specific information about:
- The horns — length, branched, or parallel?
- Body size in comparison to other ungulates in the PST.
- Body hue.
- Body markings.
The observers’ answers provided scientists with a foundation of basic knowledge. Of special importance was the fact that at least five of the hunters had saola skulls and horns in their houses, which they correctly identified. This showed unequivocal certainty that the saola was known in their communities.
What they learned
The study by Phommachanh et. al. revealed that:
- Saolas frequent areas where there are plenty of streams and possibly, they like the vegetation along these streams.
- Saolas inhabit primary forests (the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO]) of the United Nations defines primary forests as:
- Having a large density of trees
- Little to no human activity
- Ecological processes that are not significantly disturbed.
- Sometimes saola meander through secondary growth forests which:
- Regenerate on primary forests that were cleared by natural or man made causes.
- In some ways they have greater potential than primary forests. For example, secondary forests sequester ten times greater atmospheric carbon dioxide than primary forests do.
- Saolas prefer to travel on thin animal trails (17 of 18 sites), rather than human trails.
- People put snares on animal trails to protect their crops or for illegal trade. Saolas become a bycatch, as there is no local nor international market for them.
- Saolas inhabit steep and remote areas, making them hard for people to see.
- Many believe that saolas are easily caught by dogs, but only one capture by dogs has been recorded. In the PST dogs are rarely used.
Recommendations by Phommachanh’s team:
- Future camera-trapping should focus on primary forests where there is little to no human use.
- Focus should center on site elevations of 1,200 m or higher.
- Research should target areas where saola are most commonly seen in Laos and Vietnam, and the two countries should share information about these locations.
- Saola research should be prioritized because its population is very small.
Further threats to the saola
The greatest threat to saola is professional hunters and commercial poachers. Largely, saolas are bycatch of wire cable snares set up by illegal poachers. Since 2011, the SWG and its partners have focused on five protected areas and removed 130,000 cable snares. However, the most committed poachers set them back up again and there are thousands of snares still remaining. The scale of the problem is staggering. These are organized criminals with automatic weapons, chainsaws, sophisticated satellite phones, and all-terrain vehicles.
Saola are usually the bycatch of hunters. There is no significant price or demand for saolas. Neither is it valued in traditional pharmacopeias, because it isn’t well known by other cultures.
The building of roads in saola habitat has boosted illegal hunting and logging, galvanized by China’s demand for traditional medicine and restaurants and markets’ demand for meat in Vietnam and Laos.
In Asia, illegal wildlife trade works with secret networks to provide food in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam. The saola are not as threatened by local people who do subsistence hunting.
Laws against hunting are poorly enforced and the usual penalty is a heavy fine. The maximum, seven-year imprisonment penalty is rarely applied. In 2009, Vietnam’s National Assembly said:
- Over 66 percent of illegal, poached wildlife is used for food.
- Some 32 percent is exported.
- A small number are sold as pets and for medicinal purposes.
Patrolling must be increased and regulations against snare traps should be enforced. The villagers should also be educated to value sustainable management of wildlife.
The second major threat is the loss of habitat. As people build homes and infrastructure, forest trees disappear. Land use also changes to benefit human needs. Snares are used to protect their crops. This further disseminates the saola’s habitat, squeezing the animal into smaller areas.
The IUCN said that in 1940 forests occupied 71 percent of land. As of 2013 this has gone down to 35 percent. Laos has laws against timber trade, but implementation is sparse and it exports timber to China, Thailand and mostly, Vietnam.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail is now an asphalt road that cuts through endangered forest habitats and protected areas in the Annamite mountains. Conservationists contend that concrete roads sever critically protected areas. Once, the Annamite Mountain range, was only reachable by foot or by elephant. Now a road and a highway slashes through it, interrupting saola habitat.
These roads separate saola because this animal never crosses big roads or large highways. With separation, subpopulations are created and saola behavior adjusts to smaller spaces by genetic inbreeding. There is possible loss of heterozygosity, (inheritance of genes from each parent), unbalanced sex ratios, and difficulty mating males that are isolated and separated from females.
Rob Timmins, SWG and a biologist, said in 2012, “All areas where the saola exist are being hunted on both sides of the border. Around 90 per cent of the saola probably used to be in Vietnam, with around 10 per cent in Laos. Today, the 10 per cent in Laos may be all that remains. We’re not at the ‘tipping point’ yet. But the best bet for survival of the saola may now be in Laos”.
Robichaud says, “We must act with the greatest sense of urgency. We cannot continue to let one of the rarest and most distinctive large animals in the world slip toward extinction through complacency”.
Hopefully, the recent act of Asian Arks and Rainforest Trust will succeed where others have failed. They have developed a novel, long-term model to protect the saola. The plan includes collaborating with some 2,659 locals by employing them to help patrol the area, remove snares, and staff a state-of-the-art biological research station.
James Deutsch, Ph.D., and CEO of Rainforest Trust said “Our hope is that, in future years, area residents and visitors and scientists will be able to glimpse the Asian Unicorn and other amazing species in this forest, safely thriving in a secure habitat.”
Also, a new multi-sensory saola display was added to the summit house in Bach Ma National Park. The park seeks to raise awareness about the conservation of rare and endangered species that live in the park. The IUCN and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development have collaboratively established a program to study, rescue, and preserve the Saola by adding a Saola breeding center in the park.
WWF Vietnam has developed Saola statues and information boards for the project to raise the awareness of the community, foreign organizations, government, and tourists, about the saola and hopefully, engage them in practical ways to lend support and protection of the saola.
Hopefully, the Rainforest Trust can truly put an end to hunting. According to TRAFFIC, hunting doesn’t just endanger animals, it also threatens the ecological community as well, not only in Vietnam and Laos, but also the entire global community. The level of hunting today is unsurpassed. It presents danger to mankind and to the biodiversity that we depend on.