The centre is scheduled to be built by the end of this year or early next year, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Information about the breeding centre was released on the occasion of the second World Saola Day, observed on July 9 every year. A WWF statement said the centre “marks a renewed sense of hope and urgency for an international partnership to develop the first-ever conservation breeding programme for the saola, an antelope-like mammal so rare that no biologist has ever seen it in the wild.” Also known as the Vu Quang ox, spindlehorn, or Asian bicorn (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), the saola is one of the world’s rarest large mammals found only in the Trường Sơn Mountain Range of Vietnam and Laos.
Although the partnership, coordinated by the Saola Working Group (SWG), has made significant advances in the protection of saola habitat in the Annamite mountain range on the border of Vietnam and Laos, commercial poaching remains rampant, leaving the saola teetering on the edge of extinction.
Since the species’ astounding discovery in 1992, only about 10 saola have ever been captured alive, all caught by local villagers in Laos and Vietnam. Without professional veterinary and husbandry care, the longest that any of the animals lived was a few months. The last saola known to be captured alive was in 2010 in a village in Laos. It died in less than a week. Biologists have also only photographed the species five times in the wild since its discovery 25 years ago, all by camera traps - twice in Laos and three times in Vietnam.
The most recent camera trap photos were taken in 2013, when a WWF camera trap caught images of an animal in a saola nature reserve in central Vietnam. It was the first photo of a saola in the wild in more than 15 years. Saola are difficult to detect because of their elusiveness, which gives them the nickname Asian ‘unicorn,’ and because they live in dense forest in remote and difficult terrain.
SWG biologists and partners are currently testing several techniques to detect the saola, ranging from “tried-and-true” methods, like automated camera traps, to newer ones including environmental DNA. Camera trap efforts in the saola’s range have provided invaluable information about other rare and endemic Annamite species in recent years, including the Annamite-striped rabbit and the critically endangered large-antlered muntjac, which is a species of barking deer.
Large and medium-sized mammals in the Annamites are threatened by intensive poaching, usually accomplished by the setting of wire snares. SWG and partners will also use the breeding centre to establish the first conservation programme for the large-antlered muntjac, which was discovered two years after the saola. This will be the first organised attempt to breed either species. The Saola Working Group works collaboratively to conserve saola in nature, and to leverage saola as a flagship for conservation of the bio-cultural diversity of the Annamite Mountains as a whole. The Saola Working Group is part of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group. The SWG was formed in 2006 in recognition of the need for urgent, focused and coordinated action to save saola from extinction.
Bảo Bình (VNA source)