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Saolas are a critically endangered antelope-like species
Saolas are a critically endangered antelope-like speciesImage: AP

Saving the rare saola

June 10, 2011

A nature reserve in Vietnam has brought new hope for the survival of one of the world's rarest mammals, the saola. Authorities in central Quang Nam Province agreed to set up the reserve last month.


The saola, an antelope-like species, also known as the Asian unicorn – though it has two horns – was first discovered in the forests of central Vietnam in 1992.

"When Vietnamese scientists came to the local area to do a research on other local animals, they found the long horn of a rare, strange animal, and they think it is new species," says Van Ngoc Thinh, the manager of the World Wildlife Fund's Vietnam program. "And after that they came back again with the international scientists to collect samples to analyze the DNA."

Fewer than 50 saolas left in the wild

The tests showed that the saola was found in the national parks and forests between Laos and Vietnam. Back then, it was thought that there might be up to 750 of them. However, numbers have declined sharply and the rare animal is now on the critically endangered species list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Saola was first discovered in the forests of central Vietnam in 1992
Saolas were first discovered in the forests of central Vietnam in 1992Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Thinh estimates that there are now fewer than 50 saolas living in the wild. "The major threat both in Laos and Vietnam is mainly hunting for traditional medicine or for food, not for trading."

Habitat destruction is the other threat, says Thinh. "In developing countries like Vietnam and Laos, the forest is getting destroyed by illegal logging, or for infrastructure development." Thinh adds that the "building of new roads has caused the saola habitat to be disconnected."

The saola is very sensitive to its surrounding environment and knows when it is encroached upon. It is a shy creature that needs to live in the forest and thus rarely approaches fields or villages. Since 1993, 18 of 20 soalas captured by villagers have died – some within a week and others after only a few months.

Saola Nature Reserve - a new hope

Thinh thinks that the new nature reserve, which is located in the Annamite Mountains along the border with Laos, is the ideal habitat for the saola.

A remote and protected nature reserve has brought new survival hopes for saola
A remote and protected nature reserve has brought new survival hopes for the saolaImage: AP

"It's a very remote area and it's totally protected. The government will not develop infrastructure or make new roads there. The nature reserve will work with others to increase the forest cover not only for the saola, but also for other animals and plants there. The new protected area will be safe," says Thinh.

The WWF is conducting further research into saolas. It is using local knowledge for community mapping to locate priority areas and radio tracking and DNA sampling to better understand their ecology. It hopes that these efforts will help save the saola from becoming extinct.

The Saola Nature Reserve is the result of a joint project between the Quang Nam Provincial Forest Protection Department and the World Wildlife Fund. The range is also home to many other rare species, such as the Annamite rabbit, the Indian bison and the Indochinese tiger.

Author: Sherpem Sherpa
Editor: Sarah Berning

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