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Story of Our Founders

Saola Foundation Beginnings 

Among the founders of the Saola Foundation were Vilat Keomoungkhoun and Wibe Wagemans. Close friends and business partners, Vilat was born in Lao and now lives in Texas in the US, where he is a technology start-up specialist. Wibe is a Dutch-American business entrepreneur based in Seattle. Saola captured their imagination in 2016, through reading the book The Last Unicorn, by William DeBuys. The book follows Bill Robichaud (now the Saola Foundation’s President) through the villages and forests of the Annamite Mountains in search of the Saola.

After reading The Last Unicorn, Vilat and Wibe reached out to Bill to ask how they could best contribute to Saola conservation. Together they conceived of establishing a new non-profit organization in the US, to raise support for the work of Saola conservation, in particular the work of the IUCN Saola Working Group. This idea manifested itself as the Saola Foundation.

The story of the Saola is one close to Vilat’s heart. Vilat’s family left Lao as refuges when Vilat was very young, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War (a war which engulfed neighboring Lao). Vilat returns to visit his home country at least once a year and has a driving passion to do something for his country and people. Vilat sees Saola as a symbol of the country, adversely impacted by American bombing, and over-consumption of natural resources. His wish and vision is to see Saola thriving in the wild for future Lao generations.

Vilat’s daughters, Melissa and Nataly, and Wibe’s son Yos were driving forces in setting up the Foundation, an experience which has had lasting impact on their lives.

Melissa, co-founder and first volunteer Executive Director (2018-19), enthuses:
“Establishing the Saola Foundation brought me to learn about the beauty of Lao – my father’s home country hides many endangered species and Saola is one of them. It also encouraged me to reach out to my friends and peers, to encourage their involvement in finding ways to protect Saola from extinction.”

Yos, Wibe’s son, co-founder and second volunteer Executive Director (2019 – 20) has a firm passion for wildlife conservation. “I wanted to do my small part to change the Saola’s endangered species status even if from the other side of the world.”

In 2019, the opportunity arose to develop the Foundation to a new level and turn its leadership and management over to a team of skilled professionals. And so, the new Saola Foundation for Annamite Mountains Conservation was born.

Lao, Dutch, American, young and old: the original founders of the Saola Foundation remain an inspiring example of the sort of passionate, broad collaboration needed to save the Saola. From such an inspirational beginning, we look forward to a future with Saola roaming safely in healthy, diverse forests of the Annamite Mountains.