I imagine not many readers can put a name to a face so to speak when I mention Annamite striped rabbit or Large-antlered muntjac. I had no idea what these animals were before I started delving into the natural history of this region. Of course part of the reason more people don’t know more about these animals is because so little is known about them in the first place. But if you spend the time this region will yield biological treasures like no other. I’d like to start a series profiling the animals that live in the Annamite Mountains. Some are only found in this area. Others have a broader geographic range but are unique in their own right. I can’t think of a better species to start with than the rarest and most elusive large mammal in the Annamites: the Saola. This will be the first of several posts about this extraordinary species.

In 1992 a joint team of Vietnamese and American biologists working in Vu Quang Nature Reserve found an unusual set of horns in the house of a local hunter. The horns were long, smooth, straight, and jet black. And they did not belong to any known species. (It’s important to note that although the species was unknown to science, local peoples had long been familiar with it.) Further searches turned up additional specimens. The locals said the horns belonged to a deer-like animal that was very shy and lived in only the deepest forest. They called the animal Saola (pronounced “sow•lah”). The name comes from the T’ai language and is loosely translated as “spinning-wheel post,” referring to the distinctive horns that resemble the spokes on a wagon. Biologists named it Pseudoryx nghetinhensis. The genus name refers to the animal’s superficial resemblance to a type of antelope called the oryx. The specific epithet is an amalgamation of the names of the two Vietnamese provinces—Nghe An and Ha Tinh—where the species was originally recorded. Announcing the discovery of a new large mammal species was equivalent to dropping a bombshell on the world of biology. It was the first large mammal to be discovered since 1937. And it was completely unlike any other known living species. Questions flooded in.

Saola horns hanging in a shop in Vinh
Saola horns hanging in a shop in Vinh

What exactly was it? Genetic work indicates that the Saola is a kind of primitive wild cattle species. But it is unlike any other type of wild cattle known to science. The species is so unique that a new genus had to be created for it. What did it look like? For years all scientists had to go on were a handful of skulls taken from the trophy walls of local hunters. Then in the late 90’s a few camera trap images were taken. To date we have five tantalizing photographs of Saola. A handful of specimens were also caught, all of which died shortly after capture. This information allowed biologists their first glimpse at a remarkable animal. An adult Saola weighs approximately 175 pounds, similar in size to a large deer. It has a dark brown coat with a black stripe running down the back. The hair is short and smooth. Perhaps the most striking visual feature is the pattern of brilliant white facial markings. Both males and females have unusually long and sharp horns—an effective defensive tool against predators. Where does it live? Interviews with hunters suggested that the Saola is restricted to wet evergreen forests with little or no dry season and lives only in the most remote areas. Landscape-level surveys suggested that the Saola has a patchy distribution between the Northern and Central Annamite Mountains. Shortly after its discovery in Vietnam evidence of the species turned up in Laos.

What else do we know? Not much. The above short paragraph summarizes most of what is known about the animal. In the twenty years following its scientific debut we have learned very little about it. The Saola is the most mysterious and elusive large mammal in Asia—perhaps the world. There is one fact that is well established: the Saola is critically endangered. The species has a highly restricted global range, survives in increasingly fragmented populations, and occurs at naturally low densities. Combine this with the ever present and rampant poaching that occurs throughout the Annamite Mountains and you have a species that is in trouble. Precise population estimates are impossible to make, but the IUCN-based Saola Working Group estimate that at most several hundred remain, and at worst the global population could be in the tens. Without immediate conservation actions the Saola could be the first large mammal to go extinct in our lifetime. That fear drives my own work. It’s a fear that I can’t escape. It’s what brought be to the jungles of Vietnam.

Saola camera trap photo
Saola camera trap photo
Saola: note white facial markings
Captive Saola


2 thoughts on “Saola”

  1. Howdy would you mind letting me know which webhost you’re using?

    I’ve loaded your blog in 3 differen web browserss and I must say this blog loads a lot quicker then most.
    Can yoou suggest a good hosting provider at a reasonable price?

    Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!

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