Saving the Asian "unicorn"

Posted: 20th February, 2018

BIAZA has joined the fight to save one of the rarest species on the planet.  The UK and Ireland's national zoo association is one of a global community of zoo associations and their members who have generously contributed to support efforts to save the Critically Endangered saola, an antelope-like species. Recognised by conservationists as the last best hope to save this incredibly rare species, BIAZA has donated £50,000 ($70,000) towards a conservation breeding centre in Vietnam’s Bach Ma National Park.


In total, zoos and zoo associations around the globe have collectively donated or pledged more than $350,000 for the Saola Working Group’s urgent saola fundraising campaign.  


“BIAZA zoos may not have saolas in their collections, but the UK and Ireland’s national zoo association understands the inherent value of this rare species and is demonstrating its clear commitment to wildlife conservation with its donation,” said Bill Robichaud, coordinator of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Saola Working Group (SWG). “We are so grateful for the support from the zoo 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.”


The saola was discovered by science in 1992 in the Annamite Mountain range on the border of Laos and Vietnam. Although the SWG partnership has made advances in the protection of saola habitat, commercial poaching remains a significant threat, and has the saola teetering on the edge of extinction. It is estimated that fewer than 100 saolas survive in the wild. In partnership with the governments of Vietnam and Laos, the SWG will use the support from the zoo fundraising campaign for the establishment of a conservation breeding centre, based in Vietnam, and to improve protection of forest areas in Vietnam and Laos for eventual re-introduction of saola.


To date, 22 different zoos and zoo associations from across Europe and North America have donated to the campaign, with BIAZA contributing a fifth of the total raised so far.  Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), the host and close partner of the SWG, is matching the first $250,000 raised.


“Zoos have been some of the greatest supporters of saola conservation over the years,” said Barney Long, GWC’s director of species conservation and chair of the Saola Working Group Steering Committee. “The current effort presents the last good opportunity to save the saola from extinction and zoos are a critical part of this effort, not just from a fundraising point of view, but also from a technical point of view. They bring the expertise and knowledge we’ll need to capture, transport, care for, and breed these animals safely and effectively.”


Since the species’ discovery, only about 10 saola have been captured from the wild, 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 have been captured was in 2010 in Laos.


Saolas are difficult to detect because of their rarity and elusiveness, which has earned them the nickname the Asian “unicorn” and because they live in dense forest in remote and difficult terrain.


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 in early 2018.