A saola antelope (a forest-dwelling bovine), which occurs only in areas within Vietnam and Laos was captured and placed in captivity by villagers in a remote part of Laos. It is not clear why they villagers captured and incarcerated it. The saola antelope is a species with no more than several hundred individuals, but little is known about them, so their actual number could be even lower. The species was discovered in 1992. Unfortunately, the animal found in Laos died in captivity before it could be released into the wild.
The World Wildlife Fund says of the population size, “Since its discovery, it is believed to have rapidly declined in the face of ever-growing hunting pressure, although the actual size of the remaining population is unknown.” Only 11 have been recorded alive.
An International Union for Conservation of Nature official, William Robichaud said, “It is hard to think of another animal in the world so phylogenetically distinctive, so threatened with extinction, and yet with so little conservation attention.” (Source: Lao Voices)
There is so little known about them, the saola have been falsely associated with a mythical significance, as an Asian unicorn, even though it is very obvious they have two horns. An article in Lao Voices reported there are none of the shy, elusive animals living in zoos, so if they are extinguished in the wild, they will be gone forever. The EarthWatch Institute said the saola could be gone in 20 years.
Some say they are an antelope, but they are more closely related to wild cattle and elands, so they are more often considered a bovine. Both male and female saola have long slender horns. They can weigh as much as 200 pounds. Although there is little information about them, it is currently believed they give birth to one calf per mating season, and live in very small groups. It has been said by villagers the saola do not enter agricultural fields, and prefer to remain in the cover of forested areas.
One positive aspect about the lack of knowledge of the reclusive saola is that it isn’t targeted by hunters as much as other species, because there apparently is no demand from traditional chinese medicine, nor from the international wild meat trade. However, snares and hunting are causing them to die as some local villagers want the meat.
The few remaining saola live in the Annamite Mountains, in dense, wet forests of evergreen and semi-evergreen trees. This mountain range is 680 miles long and runs through Laos, Vietnam and part of Cambodia. It is thought the Annamites are home to a number of endemic species including primates, birds, orchids, and trees.
A BBC article about another rare species in the Annamite mountains summarized the conservation situation there, “Laos is a very poor country, yet it’s managed to protect a lot of its biodiversity. But it needs financial help from abroad so that local people can find other sources of food, and of income.”
Image Credit: Bolikhamxay Provincial Conservation Unit