Saola - A Critically Endangered Species
The saola, one of the most critically endangered species in the world and on the IUCN red list, is a very rare and distinct species that was discovered only around a couple of decades before in May 1992, often called the “Asian Unicorn.” We will look into the details of how the saola was discovered, its habitat and food, the characteristics and behavior, the reproduction process, the main threats and the reason why the saola are endangered, the conservation efforts taken to protect them, some interesting facts and what can be done to help protect them.
During a joint survey that was carried out in North-Central Vietnam by the WWF and the Ministry of Forestry of Vietnam, in 1992, they found remains of the saolas in the Vu Quang Nature reserve. Three skulls were found kept in hunters’ homes, that had long straight horns and looked very unusual.
The team proposed to have a three months survey to observe this animal, but had no luck. Scientists and biologists have still not spotted a saola in the wild. Information gathered about these species is mostly from studies conducted on dead saolas or remains of saolas or through tales heard from villagers. Very few saolas that were alive and in captivity (around 13 saolas) have been studied or researched, to gather some information about them.
A saola that was captured by the villagers in Laos in August 2010, died even before the conservationists could release it safely into the wild. Studies were conducted on its carcass to learn more about the animal.
Scientific Classification (Taxonomy):
“Saola” means “Spindle horned” in the Tai (Language in Vietnam) and Lao language.
Abbreviations and Explanation of Terms Used:
- WWF – World Wildlife Fund
- IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature
- WCS – Wildlife Conservation Society
- NBCA – National Biodiversity Conservation Area
- SWG – Saola Working Group
- EDGE - Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered
- FSC - Forest Stewardship Council
- CITES - Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species
- Maxillary - of or relating to the upper jaw.
- Unicorn - an imaginary creature represented as a white horse with a long horn growing from its forehead.
- Traffic - Wildlife trade monitoring network.
Characteristics and Behavior
- The saola has two long smooth black horns that are parallel and slightly curved backwards. The horns are long and sharp (round in cross-section), and grow up to a length of 35 to 50 cm. Both the males and females have horns.
- Their furry coat of is dark brown with black stripe running along the back that ends at the tail. The hair is fine and glossy. Their legs are dark with two white patches above the hooves.
- Their tail has three different colors (Brown on top, cream in the middle and black at the end) and ends in a fluffy tassel.
- They have white patches / markings on their face in the cheek area, in the chin and lips, and also above the eyes.
- The thickness of the skin is between 1 to 2 mm over most areas of its body and is 5 mm thick at the back side of the neck and upper shoulders. This is a unique adaptation to protect themselves from the predators and while fighting.
- They have large maxillary glands in their cheeks. They open a fleshy flap on their nose to expose the scent glands and rub the under surface against objects, leaving a musky and pungent paste. This could be used to attract mates or to mark their territories.
- The saola grows up to a height of 85 cm (shoulder height) and weighs around 80 to 100 kg. Their head and body length can be around 150 cm and tail length around 25 cm
- They are very shy animals and stay away from human habitat. They are usually solitary and have sometimes been seen in groups of two (male and female or mother and offspring) or three and very rarely more than three.
- They are active in the mornings and afternoons and the only sound they produce is a soft, short bleat.
- Tiger, leopards, crocodiles and dholes (Fierce wild dog of the forests of central and southeast Asia that hunts in packs) could be their predators.
Habitat and Food
- The only habitat of the saolas is the Annamite range of mountains of Vietnam and Laos that have moist forests and the Eastern Indochina dry and monsoon forests.
- There are estimates of patchy populations from Ca River in the north of Vietnam to Quang Nam province in the south of Vietnam. They have been spotted in Southern parts of Nakai-Nam Theun which is NBCA in Lao. They are also reported to have been spotted in Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Hue and Quang Nam in Vietnam and Sekong in Lao.
HabitatClick thumbnail to view full-size
- The actual number of saolas found in the wild is not known. There is none in captivity. The population could be a few tens to a few hundreds while only 11 saolas that are alive have been recorded. IUCN estimates the total saola population to be much less than 750. It could even be a few dozens!
- They have also been seen in river valleys at a height of 300 to 1,800 m. These valleys have either evergreen forests or evergreen and woodland forests and also indicates the fact that these species like to live around the edges of forests.
- During rainy seasons, the saolas stay in mountain forests where there are plenty of water in rivers and streams and move to the low lying areas during winter.
- They are herbivores and eat small plants including fig leaves, stems, bushes along the riverbanks. They are browsers and their main food is leaves.
- They give birth between the months of April and June. This shows that they have a fixed breeding season which could be between the end of August till mid-November..
- The pregnancy period is estimated to be around eight months. They are estimated to give birth to one young one at a time.
- Details about maturity and the period for which the young one is looked after by the mother are unknown.
- They are estimated to live for eight to eleven years.
Main Threats and Reasons They're Endangered
- Hunting is a major threat to the these animals. They are hunted for their meat and for their horns as trophies.
ThreatsClick thumbnail to view full-size
- Illegal wildlife trade for traditional medicines, fur, meat are the reasons why wildlife is hunted.
- They also get caught in snares that are set by the villagers for other wild animals like the sambar deer, muntjac deer, barking deer, wild boar, etc. , in order to protect their crops.
- Another reason for the loss of these species is loss in habitat. Humans destroy the forests where saolas live and use them for agriculture and other infrastructures. This either fragments the saola population or reduces the size of their habitat. Fragmentation will also decrease genetic diversity and create issues like inbreeding.
- Decrease in the size of habitat also makes the saolas more vulnerable in the sense that they are in easy access to the hunters.
- WWF is working towards protecting the saolas by establishing protected areas and by strengthening the laws.
- WWF is working with the communities to get them to help with protecting and conserving the saolas.
- WWF has taken on projects to improve managements in the Vu Quang Nature Reserve and has also established two new nature reserves for the saolas in Thua-Thien Hue and Quang Nam provinces.
- WWF also conducts surveys and research on these animals, of which very little information is available at the moment.
- More than 26,651 snares have been removed between February 2011 and November 2012 from the saola habitat with the help of privately funded and trained forest guards who were hired from local communities. WWF, WCS, SWG and other organizations were involved in this project
- IUCN formed the SWG in 2006 to help protect the saolas and their habitat. This group comprises of the biologists and conservationists from WWF, WCS, around 40 experts from the forestry departments of Laos and Vietnam, Vietnam Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources and Vinh University.
- WWF has also set camera traps to monitor saolas and to conduct studies and research.
- WWF produced and telecast a documentary on the plight of the saolos in the Vietnamese television to create awareness among the community
- Ministry of Forestry in Vietnam has cancelled its logging operations and has also issued a ban on capturing this animal for any purpose.
- EDGE also has plans to support conserving the saolas through raising awareness, research and protecting them.
- Saola has been documented in the wild only four times in these 20 years.
- They are the first large mammal that was newly discovered in the past 50 years and one of the rarest mammals in the world.
- The other names for saola are Vu Quang ox, Vu Quand bovid, Sao La, Vu Quang – Wildrindes, Sun Duong (meaning mountain goat), Yang (in Lao community) or Asian Unicorn.
Note: I am clarifying the word “unicorn” here. It is referred to as “Asian unicorn”, not because it looks like a unicorn, but because it is rare and cannot be sighted just like how we cannot sight a unicorn.
- All saolas in captivity have died, which leads to an assumption that this species cannot survive in captivity.
- The scent glands of the saola are the largest of any living mammals
- The white markings on the saola’s face represents a symbol for biodiversity.
- They are very different from any known species and hence a different genus was constructed for it.
- They are afraid of dogs and when they encounter one, their glands swell and they snort.
- It is believed that these species may have lived at elevations below 400 m that are currently densely populated by people.
- All of the thirteen saolas that were in captivity, died within days or weeks and none of them survived for more than five months.
Working Together to Save Them
What Can You Do to Help?
- You can help by spreading the information about the saolas to everyone.
- You can donate to the SWG thereby helping with snare collection (thousands of snares have been removed by this group).
- You can also donate to WWF to help with protection and conservation programs for the saolas.
- Please do not buy wildlife products that are sold illegally.
- You can stop wearing coats made from the fur of wild animals and start using synthetics.
- Please buy only those forest products that are FSC certified.
Did you know about the Saolas?
Have you heard about the Saolas before? Have you seen them?
I hope you enjoyed reading about this rare species that are hard to sight in the wild. These animals are under a serious threat towards extinction and we need to do the best we can to help save them from extinction.
Let us help save the saolas and our planet. There are so many other critically endangered, endangered and threatened species all over the planet in various habitat / ecosystem. We have also lost so many other species due to the destruction caused by humans apart from natural catastrophes.
We need to work together to stop all these destructive activities and educate our children and the younger generation about the importance of conserving and protecting our environment.
Thank you for reading.