An Earthwatch scientist has called for urgent action to save the saola, a Critically Endangered1 species of Asian cattle which is being hunted to the point of extinction. The warning comes as conservation biologists from four countries gathered for an emergency meeting in Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) in Southeast Asia in August.
The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) lives in the remote valleys of the Annamite Mountains along the border of Lao PDR and Vietnam. It was only discovered in 1992, and its small numbers and limited range meant that it was already considered rare. The experts at the meeting in Vientiane agreed that saola numbers appear to have declined sharply, dangerously approaching the point of disappearance.
Saola resemble the desert antelopes of Arabia in appearance but are more closely related to cattle. The mammal has striking white facial markings and long tapering horns and is a reclusive inhabitant of the wet forests of the Annamites. Saola have rarely been seen or photographed, and have proved difficult to keep alive in captivity. Their wild population may number less than a few hundred.
Earthwatch Research Manager Dr James Burton, Chair of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission's Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group says: "There is so little information about the saola that we could easily lose it to extinction and we would not know it has gone. To discover and lose a new species of mammal within less than 20 years would be a disaster for the biodiversity of our planet. The group that attended the workshop represents the best hope for saving the saola, so we should take this small window of opportunity to motivate all stakeholders into action."
The emergency meeting was organised by the Saola Working Group, part of the Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC). The Saola Working Group meeting from 19-21 August followed on from Southeast Asian regional strategic planning workshops in June 2008.
1 International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.
A wild saola caught on film by an automatic camera-trap in central Laos in 1999.
This female was captured in 1996 in Laos by local villagers, and transferred to a nearby menagerie, but survived only a few weeks.