(Pseudoryx nghetinhensis)
Incredibly, the saola was completely unknown to western science until its discovery from horns in hunter’s houses in Vietnam in 1992. Now, less than two decades later it is regarded as one of the most threatened mammals in Southeast Asia. Known as the Asian unicorn because of its rarity, the saola population may be as low as a few tens of individuals today. These are restricted to remaining forest in the Annamite Mountains between Vietnam and Lao PDR. These forests are littered with snares set for other species. With the population at such a critically low level, urgent conservation action is needed to bring this remarkable animal back from the brink of extinction.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Enforcement of anti-poaching measures is the most pressing conservation priority.
Lao PDR and Vietnam
The name sao la means “spindle horn” and refers to the apparent similarity between the animal’s long, pointed horns and the weaving needles that are used in the Vietnamese part of the animal’s range.
Associated Blog Posts
22nd May 12
Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the discovery a pair of saola horns in a village in Vu Quang Nature Reserve, Vietnam, by a team of Vietnamese and WW...  Read

4th May 12
The parasitic lifestyle that bloodsucking leeches lead hasn’t seemed to earn them any respect from human beings, until now. Research published last week ha...  Read

30th Mar 12
Piercing through the dark fog of pessimistic predictions for conservation’s future, rays of hope are appearing, in the guise of newly discovered species or...  Read

5th Dec 11
One of EDGE’s top priority species is the saola; a shy and secretive mammal found in Vietnam and Lao PDR that many people have never even heard of. It...  Read

11th Apr 11
Earlier this month William Robichaud gave an interview to Mongabay.com about his work into the research and conservation of the endangered saola (Pseudoryx n...  Read

2nd Mar 11
One of the new additions to the group of focal EDGE Mammals in urgent need of conservation attention is the saola, a shy and secretive mammal found in Vietna...  Read

Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
The saola resembles the desert antelopes of Arabia in appearance but is in fact more closely related to wild cattle. It is a primitive member of the ruminant artiodactyl family Bovidae, which includes antelope, buffalo, bison, cattle, goats and sheep. However, its placement within this family has proven controversial owing to its puzzling combination of morphological traits. The species possesses both ‘caprine’ and ‘bovine’ morphological characters, leading it to be placed at various times within the subfamily Bovinae (which includes cattle and buffaloes [Bovini], and some “antelope” tribes such as Tragelaphini and Boselaphini)), and the caprine bovids (sheep, goats, musk oxen, goat antelopes, and Pantholops). Recent morphological and molecular analyses have placed the species within the tribe Bovini. The species was considered to be sufficiently distinct for it to be placed in its own genus, Pseudoryx.
Head and body length: 1,500 – 2,000 mm
Weight: 80-100 kg
The saola is characterised by a unique combination of morphological traits, including long, slender, smooth, spindle shaped horns, striking white markings on the face which is predominantly chestnut and black, and very large maxillary glands. Horns are found on both sexes, with no known dimorphism, and can reach more than 50 cm in length. The massive maxillary glands along the upper muzzle are probably the largest of any extant animal species. Each is covered by a muscular lid that the saola can raise like an awning to expose the gland. These then secret a pungent, musky paste-like substance. The short, glossy coat ranges in colour from a rich chestnut brown to almost black and is paler on the underside. The legs are blackish and there is a narrow, dark stripe down the middle of the back, from the nape to the tail, which ends in a fluffy black tassle.
Very little is known about the ecology of the saola due to its rarity and relatively recent discovery. Most information has been obtained from observation of captive individuals or reports from villagers. Saola are diurnal and primarily browsers. Villagers say that they eat the leaves of fig trees and other bushes along riverbanks. They have also been seen to take some grasses and herbs from ground level. They are thought to be mostly solitary, but have been reported to occur in groups of two to three and rarely six or seven. Adult males may be solitary and range over a greater area than females. They may be territorial, with individuals possibly marking territory with scent from their large maxillary glands. Examination of young animals taken by hunters indicates that there is a distinct birth season in February and March.
The saola appears to depend on dense wet, evergreen forest. Individuals appear to use all forest levels, including lowland secondary forest along rivers. They reportedly keep to higher slopes in summer and descend to lower levels in winter when the upper streams are dry. The saola is a mid-altitude species, at least in the present day, with most records coming from between 400 and 1,000 m. Formerly, it may have occurred (and even preferred) wet forest at low elevation (below 400 m), but in Vietnam such areas are now densely settled by people and highly degraded and fragmented.
The species is restricted to a narrow area of forest along the northern and central Annamite Mountains, on the border between Vietnam and Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). In Vietnam the species is thought to occur in Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua-Thien Hue and Quang Nam Provinces. Its range includes the only extensive pristine forest in the country. In Lao PDR there is evidence of occurrence in Bolikhamxay, Khammouan, Savannakhet and Xekong Provinces; it probably also occurs in southern Xieng Khouang Province. It is suspected to occur in less than 15 forest blocks in the two countries.
Population Estimate
Population estimates are constrained by the lack of reliable field data on numbers and distribution of saola. This is due to the species’ rarity, its dense, concealing habitat, and its lack of reliably identifiable field signs (e.g., tracks, droppings). In the 1990s there were believed to be fewer than 250 mature individuals remaining. The situation has deteriorated since then and numbers may now be so low that no viable populations remain.
Population Trend
Declining. Hunters indicate that the species is encountered infrequently and has disappeared in some areas. Rates of decline are likely to increase rather than decrease, and a population reduction of more than 80% over three generations is estimated for the past, present and future.
Classified as Critically Endangered (CR A2cd+3cd+4cd; C2a(i)) on the 2010 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Conservation Underway
The saola is listed on CITES Appendix I and both of its range countries are CITES signatories. It is protected by national law in both Vietnam and in Lao PDR. The governments of both countries have taken protective measures, such as increasing the size of protected areas. However, enforcement is difficult and heavy hunting continues. A Saola Working Group has been established by the IUCN’s Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group in an effort to ensure there is a co-ordinated approach to the conservation of this species. The working group includes staff of the Forestry departments of Lao PDR and Vietnam, Vietnam's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources and Vinh University, as well as biologists and conservationists from non-government organizations, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund.

In Vietnam the saola occurs in several protected areas, including Pu Huong Nature Reserve, Pu Mat National Park and Vu Quang National Park. It may also still occur in Bach Ma National Park, where hunters’ trophies were seen in 1990. A three-year collaborative conservation project is currently underway in the Hue - Quang Nam Landscape. The project, which is being undertaken by Cambridge University, WWF-Vietnam and Vinh University is funded by the UK Darwin Initiative, and aims to carry out research into the distribution, ecology and threats facing saola and other Annamite ungulates; strengthen the capacity of leading universities within the region to produce well-trained graduates in biodiversity conservation who value traditional knowledge; and influence on-the-ground community and government forest management systems.

In Lao PDR the species is thought to occur in Nakai-Nam Theun and Xe Xap National Protected Areas, and in Nam Chat-Nam Pan Provincial Protected Area. However, only Nakai-Nam Theun has active, well-funded management. There is also a project to strengthen the management of Phou Chomvoy Provincial Conservation Forest in Bolikhamxay Province. This is being implemented by the Bolikhamxay Province and Khamkeut District Forestry offices, with technical guidance by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Lao Program.

There are currently no saola in captivity anywhere in the world. At least 13 saola have been held captive under various conditions between 1993 and 1997 (and others died during attempted capture), six in Vietnam and seven in Laos. All soon died in captivity except two that were released back to the wild. The reasons for this are not clear, but probably relate to a lack of knowledge of the saola’s precise dietary requirements and/or stress. Captive breeding programmes remain unfeasible until more information about saola ecology is obtained.
Conservation Proposed
The highest, immediate priorities for both countries are increased patrolling against snaring and other types of hunting. Current intensities of patrolling are not sufficient to halt the species’ decline and more patrols are needed throughout the species’ range. Further research into the precise distribution of saola is also recommended, as this will enable patrols to target their efforts more effectively.

Additional proposed conservation measures include a proposal to designate protected areas in Thua-Thien Hue and Quang Nam Provinces, the need for green corridors linking saola habitat patches, education and communication and further research on the distribution and ecology of the species. In particular, radio tracking has been identified as a priority research action, so that more information may be obtained on the animal’s behaviour and ranging patterns.
Gatesy, J. and Arctander, P. 2000. Hidden morphological support for the phylogenetic placement of Pseudoryx nghetinhensis with bovine bovids: a combined analysis of gross anatomical evidence and DNA sequences from five genes. Systematic Biology 49: 515-538.

Hardcastle, J. et al. 2004. Proceedings of the "Rediscovering the Saola - a Status Review and Conservation Planning Workshop" Pu Mat National Park, Con Cuong District, Nghe An Province Viet Nam.

Hassanin, A. and Douzery, E. J. P. 1999. Evolutionary affinities of the enigmatic Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) in the context of the molecular phylogeny of Bovidae. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B Biological Sciences 266: 893-900.

Mallon, D. P. & S. C. Kingswood. Antelopes Global Survey and Regional Action Plans. Part 4: North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.  IUCN Species Survival Commission Report.

Nguyen, T.T., Aniskin, V.M., Gerbault-Seureau, M., Planton, H., Renard, J.P., Nguyen, B.X., Hassanin, A. and Volobouev, V.T. 2008. Phylogenetic position of the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) inferred from cytogenetic analysis of eleven species of Bovidae. Cytogenet Genome Res 122:41–54.

Saola Working Group. 2009. From Plans to Action: Proceedings of the First Meeting of the Saola Working Group. IUCN Lao PDR Country Programme and the Saola Working Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group. Vientiane.

Timmins, R.J., Robichaud, W.G., Long, B., Hedges, S., Steinmetz, R., Abramov, A., Do Tuoc & Mallon, D.P. 2008. Pseudoryx nghetinhensis. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 15 November 2010.

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