One of the rarest and most mysterious animals in the world, the saola of Laos and Vietnam, has been seen by biologists for the first time in more than ten years. The government of Lao PDR confirms that in late August villagers in Xaychamphon District of Bolikhamxay Province caught a saola, and were holding it in a pen in the forest. The Lao government, in cooperation with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), immediately dispatched a technical team to examine the saola and release it. Unfortunately, the animal, an adult male weakened from the ordeal of several days in captivity, died shortly after the team reached the remote village.
The saola was discovered as a species new to science only in 1992, in forests in Vietnam near the Lao border. It was one of the most surprising and spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20thcentury. With their long horns and white facial markings, saola resemble the desert antelopes of North Africa, but are more closely related to cattle. They are solitary and secretive, and inhabit only dense forests of the Annamite Mountains along the Lao/Vietnam border. The species is considered "Critically Endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and probably no more than a few hundred survive. It is one of the most threatened large mammals in the world.
Although local villagers still report seeing saola in several area of Laos and Vietnam, the last confirmed records were two photos of saola in the wild taken by automatic camera traps in 1999, also in Bolikhamxay Province. There are no saola in zoos anywhere.
A statement from the Provincial Conservation Unit of Bolikhamxay Province said, "The death of this Saola is unfortunate, but at least it confirms an area where it still occurs, and the government will immediately move to strengthen conservation efforts there".
The technical team was able to photograph the animal, and preserve the body for further study. Very little is known about the saola, and the information can contribute to efforts to conserve the species in the wild.
It is not clear why the villagers brought the animal into captivity. The Lao Department of Forestry, Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office, and district authorities in Xaychamphon are now urging villagers in the area not to capture saola, and immediately release any others they might encounter.
William Robichaud, coordinator of the IUCN Saola Working Group, said, "The government of Lao PDR and WCS are to be commended for their rapid response and efforts to save this animal. We hope the information gained from the incident can be used to ensure that this is not the last saola anyone has a chance to see".