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The Enigmatic Saola and the Annamite Mountains

Updated: Mar 9

By Rob Timmins, March 2020

The Saola is nothing but enigmatic. Much like an antelope in appearance, its’ current day relatives are wild cattle such as bison and oxen. The sole representative of the genus Pseudorxy, this quiet, shy creature, has hidden in the Annamite Mountain rainforests since before humans evolved. In fact, Saola have probably existed in much the same form, on just a tiny fraction of the earth’s surface, for millions of years, predating the origins of our own genus, Homo.

The Annamite Mountains are as spectacularly unique as this enigmatic inhabitant. A combination of geography and climate systems and the stability of these systems over geologic timescales, in contrast to radical changes in surrounding ecosystems, have driven a process of both relative evolutionary stasis and isolated evolutionary advancement in the Annamites, the latter process akin to that described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in islands of the Galapagos and the Malay Archipelago. Isolated forests subjected to unique environmental conditions become an evolutionary factory for endemic species. Consequently, the Annamite Mountains, forming much of the border between Lao PDR and Vietnam, experiencing both continental and coastal weather systems and surrounded by areas of human impact, are one of the most biologically diverse and unique regions in the world.

Whilst the rest of life on Planet Earth busily evolved, and eventually humans came into existence, deep in the Annamite Mountains, the Saola and other evolutionary ‘enigmas’ from the past, like the Annamite Striped Rabbit, have thrived without the need to radically change. They continued to thrive through most of human evolution and it’s probably only in the last half-century that the Saola’s existence became seriously threatened.

Annamite-striped Rabbit - endemic to the Annamite Mountains

The rarity of Saola is attributed to a wildlife exploitation epidemic in Southeast Asia. Most devastating was the advent of industrial-scale wildlife snaring. We call it ‘industrial-scale’, because literally tens of millions of snares, in tens of thousands of miles of brush fence, have been set within the historical range of Saola over the last 30 years. Hunting is fueled by species that possess economic and medicinal value, to supply commercial bushmeat and traditional medicine markets, or for subsistence in rural communities and for people working in the forest. The Saola has relatively low economic value, with edible meat and horns that can be sold as ‘curios’. Despite this, Saola, through traits of their ecology, are especially sensitive to snares set for large game mammals, and to hunting by dogs, so whilst wild pigs and civets remain relatively common, Saola have fared far worse.

Industrial-scale snaring is wiping out terrestrial forest wildlife in Southeast Asia

So few Saola remain in the wild, that to save the Saola from extinction we must find and capture the last remaining animals and, using the best of modern knowledge and technology, breed those animals in a state-of-the-art breeding facility, and ultimately restore wild populations into secure areas of native range.

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