30 November 2022
Dear Friends of Saola,
Sabaidee! (or, ‘Greetings!’ in English),
This month, the entire senior team of the Saola Foundation rendezvoused in Lao: Technical Director Rob Timmins, CEO Lorraine Scotson, President Bill Robichaud, and Lao Programs Director Chanthasone Phommachanh (“Olay”). For most of us, it was our first trip back since the pandemic unfolded, and we have signficant progress to report:
Recruitment of national team members for the intensive Saola search team
Over the past several months, Olay and his team (especially Field Coordinator Xaisavanh Khiewvongphachan, or simply “Xai”,) rolled out a creative and comprehensive recruitment campaign, to find the best possible Lao candidates for the Saola search team. This includes positions for detection dog handlers, wildlife trackers, and logistical support staff.
Their recruitment effort reached widely in Lao, including villages in the Saola’s range, through meetings in villages, distribution of job advert pamphlets, and ads on radio, TV and the internet.
The campaign was a smash success, finding nearly 40 highly promising and enthusiastic candidates, from a diversity of ethnic groups, backgrounds and genders. From this candidate pool, we will select 15 finalists for the field team after a round of extensive ‘on the job’ interviews. We are also proud of our abiliity to bring paid employment to some of these remote villages – employment in wildlife conservation, where the villagers live.
We’re now very close to finalizing formation of the elite wildlife survey team, a team that, after their work for Saola, can contribute for years to come in the conservation of other wildlife in the Annamite Mountains.
Saola sign detection dogs
Our internationally renowned partner Working Dogs for Conservation sent two of its specialists, Aimee Hurt, a founder of Working Dogs, and Paul Bunker, the principal of Chiron K9, to join our team in Lao for a couple of weeks. Aimee and Paul went in the field in the Annamites to assess the conditions under which sign detection dogs will work. In addition, they spent several days putting the pool of national candidates for dog handler positions through some paces, to help select the final members of the detection dog team. This is fantastic progress – with many thanks to Aimee, Paul and the Executive Director of Working Dogs for Conservation, Pete Coppolillo.
Paul Bunker (left) and Technical Director Rob Timmins in a village in the Saola’s range.
Saola tracking team
Once we find a Saola, specialist members of the search team will immediately begin tracking the animal. Doing so will allow us to protect any Saola we find, rapidly learn more about the ways of Saola to help in finding the next animals, and begin to assess the best, safest way to eventually capture animals for the conservation breeding program.
Our partner CyberTracker is helping us develop this key component of the search. It’s a remarkable organization – CyberTracker has made animal tracking a discipline of focused study, and has developed an internationally recognized system for assessing, and training, animal tracking skills.
One of CyberTracker’s lead trainers and assessors, Lee Gutteridge, arrived in Lao in early November from South Africa. He went into the forest with our technical team and more than a dozen Lao applicants for Saola tracker positions. Lee and our team just completed three weeks of assessing, under field conditions, candidate aptitudes for learning tracking and for being effective members of a team. The finalists will be selected soon, and then their training can begin. A most exciting phase!
Lee Gutteridge (back row) with tracking team candidates.
Rapid field DNA testing capacity
We are thrilled to report that, after about a year of work, the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York has completed development of a Saola-specific, portable DNA test kit, to rapidly detect Saola in the forest. The WCS team, led by Dr. Tracie Seimon, to whom we are deeply indebted, reports that the kit is highly sensitive and specific, and can return a PCR test result for Saola on something like a dung sample in about an hour. The kit will also be pilot tested on other types of environmental samples to search for traces of Saola. This could be a revolutionary advance for Saola conservation. Rob and Bill have brought the kits with them to Lao – another key milestone on the path to finding and saving Saola.
A new member of our senior team
We are most pleased to welcome a new member of the Saola Foundation team, Mr. Bouaphanh Phanthavong. Bouaphanh recently retired from a long and distinguished career of leadership in the Lao Department of Forestry, where he focused on conservation issues (and in this capacity has worked closely with Rob and Bill over the past 30 years). Bouaphanh will assist us with Lao government liaison, and help us to smoothly navigate the Lao government permissions needed to implement the Saola search. He is a valuable, key addition for us. Welcome to the team, Bouaphanh!
And, a wedding!
We are delighted to announce that Olay was married on November 6! His wife is the lovely Khanmany (aka, “Nok”), who works in the field of immunology, developing genetic techniques to monitor wildlife disease. Lorraine, Bill, Rob and our Saola Foundation Research Associate, Minh Nguyen, were honored to be official members of the wedding party, over a week-long series of traditional events – official engagement ceremony, marriage ceremony, and wedding dinner/celebration.
Congratulations, Olay! And now that you’ve found a wonderful partner, onto finding some Saolas…
‘Team Saola’ assembles to escort Olay to the home of his bride’s family, for the wedding ceremony; Vientiane, 6 November 2022.
Olay & Nok, 6 November 2022
Finally, while in Lao, our senior team has been holding productive discussions and strategy sessions with the Lao government and our various conservation partners based in Lao. We are particularly grateful for the partnership and support we receive from the WCS Lao Program and its Country Director, Dr. Santi Sayphanya.
All the pieces are coming together now, in a deeply productive phase for development of the Saola search team in Lao. We are most grateful for your support that makes it possible. Please consider helping us maintain this excellent momentum by making a gift today (or a donation in honor of Olay & Nok!). You can do so through our website, by using the donate button below.
With sincere regards, and much gratitude!
The Saola Foundation Team