The Saola Pseudoryx nghetinhensis is one of the rarest large animals on earth. It is the sole species of a genus of bovids, and has been known to science only since 1992.
Adults weigh 80-100 kg, and both females and males are characterized by long, gently curving horns, and a striking pattern of white markings on the head. Its genus name comes from its resemblance to the oryxes – antelopes of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula – but the Saola’s closely living relatives are wild cattle and buffaloes.
This beautiful animal is found only in Laos and Vietnam, in the Annamite Mountains along the shared border of the two countries. It is a solitary inhabitant of deep, primary forest. In the Lao language, saola means ‘spinning wheel posts’, in reference to the similarity in size and shape of the animal’s horns to the paired support posts of local spinning wheels used by villagers in its range.
We know Saola from several capture-trap photographs, a few short-lived captives, remains in villages (especially the animal’s spectacular horns) and, mostly, information provided by local villagers. Saola is by far the largest terrestrial animal in the world (of certain existence) that has never been seen in the wild by a biologist. It remains an enigma into the 21st century. The most recent verified sighting occurred during August 2010 in the Phou Sithone Endangered Species Conservation Area, a WCS-supported site in Bolikhamxay Province Lao PDR.
The principle threat to the Saola is the unregulated hunting of ungulates and other large animals, mainly with snares and traps, for subsistence and for trade. Thousands of snares have been found in areas identified as key Saola habitat, posing a formidable threat to the species. Mitigating such threats requires not only creating incentivised enforcement strategies in the short-term but working with local communities to ensure their participation in the management of conservation areas. It is also critically important to deal with the larger changes to habitat and encroachment by large-scale expansions such as agriculture, mining and hydropower.
Although, precious little is known about the species, WCS works with the Saola Working Group and partners in two landscapes to discover more and implement actions responding to threats endangering this magnificent animal. This includes building local management capacity, conducting surveys in priority areas, trialling novel methods to learn more about the distribution of the species, establishing law enforcement, and working with local government and communities to build support for conservation.