Known as the Asian “unicorn”, the biological discovery of the saola was one of the most astonishing of the 21st century. In 1992 a group of scientists in Vietnam were given a skull of a large-bodied terrestrial mammal that had previously been undiscovered and unseen. That mammal was the saola, (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) a new genus of large mammal which more than two decades later remains one of the world’s least-known large mammals, and is now also one of the most endangered.
These mysterious ungulates live only in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and neighbouring Laos, where it is just one amongst a remarkable suite of endemic wildlife species - some of which, like the saola, have only recently been described. This pace of new vertebrate discovery is unmatched by any other region in the world, and marks the Annamite Mountains as a remarkable global biodiversity hotspot.
Unfortunately, many of these species, including the saola, are under severe threat from the region’s intense wildlife trade. This trade has made Southeast Asia the epicentre of the world’s wildlife extinction crisis today. Many of the experts involved now believe that the key to conserving this species is by collaborative efforts only - a substantial, well-funded, collective international effort, in partnership with the governments of Vietnam and Laos.
Bill Robichaud, coordinator of the Saola Working Group (SWG) believes that the best hope to save the Saola is through a captive breeding programme, “We need to act while there is still time,” he said adding that “seldom, if ever are captive breeding programs begun too soon for species on the edge. More likely, too late.”* The SWG works synergistically 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.
Fota Wildlife Park along with BIAZA and other BIAZA members responded collectively to a call put out last year from the Global Wildlife Conservation to donate funding to a critical Saola Conservation Breeding Centre. To date Fota Wildlife Park has donated $25,000 to the SWG, BIAZA has donated $70,000 and worldwide more than $350,000 has been contributed or pledged from zoos and other related organisations.
Bill Robichaud continued; “We are so grateful for the support from the zoological community, which recognizes that while the conservation breeding program is going to be risky, it’s the only option left to ensure we don’t lose this remarkable animal forever”.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, in technical partnership with the SWG, has selected Vietnam’s Bach Ma National Park as the site for the world’s first saola breeding centre. The Bach Ma centre is due to start construction early this year.
By Roisin Fitzgerald
Fota Wildlife Park
(* Scientists hope to breed Asian ‘unicorns’ – if they can find them. The Guardian. 10th August 2017)
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