Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (December 2006, No. 6)

Eclipse of the Saola?

Dwight G. Smith and Gary S. Mangiacopra

The so very recently discovered saola is already facing imminent extinction according to the recent issue of Science magazine which hit the newsstands dated 1 December 2006. Formally identified only in 1992 in the pristine forests of Vu Quang Province of central western Vietnam, the saola is justifiably viewed as one of the most important animal discoveries of the late 20th century. Now, less than a score of years later, the saola faces increasing habitat disruption and hunting pressures that make its future problematic at best. Even its celebrity status has heightened its vulnerability, as natives sometimes capture and hold specimens in hopes of financial rewards. 

The saola was CITES listed in Appendix I shortly after its discovery and also accorded formal protection by the governments of Vietnam and Laos. Both governments took the initiative to protect this forest dwelling icon by enlarging the size of the Vu Quang Nature Reserve and Pu Mat Nature Reserve in which it occurs. Unfortunately, this new artiodactylid is already facing extinction brought about by encroachments from agriculture pressures, logging, and expansion of the local peoples into the forests that the saola depends on. At least part of its habitat area is also threatened with inundation from the construction of hydroelectric dams along the Mekong River, now in the planning stages. 

Cryptozoologists justifiably take a keen interest in the saola, not least because it—along with subsequent discoveries—represents a triumph for the field. As a matter of fact, the Science article specifically mentions cryptozoology in reference to Do Tuoc, the scientist who discovered the saola in the following passage:

  • "With three (previously undiscovered) mammal species under his belt, Tuoc has become a legend in cryptozoology, the study of previously unknown, presumed, or mythical creatures."  Science 314: 1381

The article ends with another cryptozoology containing statement in referring to a statement by Tuoc:

  • "Maybe I’ll never see one in the wild," admits the cryptozoologist extraordinaire.

To my knowledge, these two references represent only the second time and third time that a major science journal has cast cryptozoology in a favorable light.  The first specific cryptozoology reference was by Dr. Gee, the editor of the prestigious British science journal Nature, who noted that the discovery of hobbit people (Homo floresiensis) permitted cryptozoology to “come in out of the cold.” 

 

Discovery Events

Also called the Sao La or Vu Quang ox, the saola is the largest terrestrial mammal species discovered in over a century and ranks alongside the okapi and gorilla for its impact on the science of cryptozoology as well as the science of mammalogy.  Like these earlier discoveries, and eerily reminiscent of the discovery of the coelacanth, the first hints that a new species of bovid awaited discovery could be found in the forest meats placed upon market tables in villages. Further inquiries revealed that local hunters had long hunted this species for its goat-like meat, although the saola is not a goat and some natives consider its flesh to taste more like beef. Identification was initially based on three pairs of Saola horns found in possession of native hunters. Its discovery was officially announced in the June 3, 1993, issue of Nature magazine by Vietnamese and American scientists who bestowed the native name saola on this beast along with the scientific name (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis). Its native name refers to the “spindle horns” which were thought to be similar to the spinning wheel posts used by local weavers. Its generic scientific name Pseudoryx, created specifically for the saola, refers to its relationship to the true oryxes while its species name nghetinhensis places the saola in the Vietnamese provinces of Nghe an and Ha tinh. 

The Mekong Delta region where the saola was first “discovered” by modern scientists is also the home of other species new to science, including the kouprey, discovered in 1937, and even more recently, the giant muntjac or barking deer discovered in March 1994.  Other possible new species in this remote part of Southeast Asia include a smaller version of the kouprey known from Vietnam and Cambodia and the large-antlered muntjac and the dwarfish Truong son muntjac in the nearby scrub forests. To these were added a small rodent, the Kha-nyou, first described in 2005 on the basis of a single specimen offered for sale in the meat markets of Laos. 

 

Appearance and Taxonomy

The saola is a medium-sized artiodactylid mammal belonging to the Family Bovidae.  Males weigh about 100 kilograms and females weigh slightly less at 85 kilograms. Sexes are similar in size and coloration, averaging around 160-175 centimeters in length including tail and standing at the shoulder about 80-90 centimeters in height. The hair is short and coarse. Its coloration ranges from a rich chestnut brown to lighter and darker browns. There are white facial markings along the chin and a white eye liner above the eyes. A thin black stripe runs nearly the length of the back which is replaced by a white strip that runs along the tail.

Two unusual features of the saola include its horns and a pair of maxillary scent glands. The horns are rounded in cross section, about 35-50 cm in length and thin and spindly in appearance and very long, about twice the length of the head. The large scent glands are reminiscent of the maxillary musk glands of certain cervids. They occur along the upper muzzle just in front of the eyes and secrete a thick paste that emits a foul and pungent odor. The odor has been compared with the musk secreted by weasels and other mammalian mustelids.

Despite extensive considerations, including genetic analysis based on mitochondrial DNA and rRNA, the taxonomy of the saola remains unresolved. The species is considered a bovine and nestled within the subfamily Bovinae, tribe Bovini, and appears to be most closely related to the cattle and buffalo, each of which are placed in a separate subtribe. Perhaps the saola will be placed in its own subtribe, the Pseudoryina, as suggested by Hassanin and Souzery in 1999.  However, recent DNA work has suggested that cattle are its probable cousins. 

 

Ecology

The saola is a shy and retiring forest dweller that avoids human modified habitats. It is an animal of pristine tropical rain forests that cover the elevated terrain of parts of southeast Asia. The saola apparently exhibits a seasonal elevational migration, summering in the higher (to 2000 meters) moist coniferous forests and wintering downslope in the mixed tropical woodlands of lowlands at elevations of 150-200 meters. Ecologically they are considered to be browsers, primarily foraging on leaves, twigs, grasses, and forbs. 

Reproduction has been inferred rather than directly observed. It is thought that the saola has a gestation period of about 33 months with breeding taking place from late August to mid-November and the young are born in the monsoon season from April into June.   

 

Desperate Measures to Avoid Extinction

By all accounts the saga of the saola is almost over before it has begun. The population is small in number and greatly restricted in distribution. Estimates of population size vary greatly. Scientists originally placed the number somewhere between 500-1000 individuals but more recent and more conservative estimates suggest a population  size of 200, maybe fewer. Population decline is attributed to continued hunting, habitat fragmentation, and accidental deaths that occur when saola are caught in snares set for bears and forest deer. 

Information regarding the distribution of the saola is even less precise. The range map that appears in Stone’s Science article shows the probable distribution extending from Pu Mat and Nghe An in the north of Vietnam and Laos south along the hilly spine almost to Quang Nam. 

In addition to hunting and habitat fragmentation pressures, the saola population now faces a disconnect when the Ho Chi Minh Highway linking South and North Vietnam is completed. 

On a brighter note, the cumulative threats to the critically endangered saola have brought cooperative efforts to preserve the species which is considered to be both bellweather and icon of Vietnam conservation efforts. Vietnam has initiated the National Saola Conservation Action Plan which calls for a complete hunting ban and other measures such as protecting the species from being captured and held by locals. Habitat preservation is also considered a premium measure of protection. Towards this end, the Vu Quang Nature Reserve was designated in an effort to afford additional habitat protection for perhaps 250 saola thought to occupy the Truong Son Mountains of central Vietnam and Laos. Protective efforts are being concentrated in a portion of this landscape that has been designated as the Saola Conservation Landscape. 

Protection and habitat preservation may not be enough to save the saola, however. Bui Xuan Nguyen of the Institute of Science and Technology is advocating an even more ambitious plan that involves cloning the saola. Despite the highly controversial nature of Nguyen’s cloning proposal, he is proceeding with obtaining tissue samples of captured individuals. Takashi Nagai of the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Tsukuba, Japan, is Nguyen’s most important ally in the ambitious project to save the saola by cloning new individuals. The two scientists are determined and dedicated in their efforts to clone the saola. 

 

Cryptozoologists and the Saola

The saola saga represents both triumphs and travails of cryptozoology. On the one hand, the discovery of this and the other larger mammal species found in a part of the world that has been settled for thousands of years provides positive proof that large animals can and do exist right under our noses, so to speak. Conversely, the plight of the saola paints a portrait of the problems that await future cryptozoological discoveries as well. We can take some comfort in all the positive attention accorded one of our newest and most spectacular species, such as measures taken at so many levels aimed at protecting the remaining population. 

Given the brief history of our encounter with this extraordinary animal, however, it seems that enlightenment at the scientific level does not warrant sufficient protection. The very notoriety of the species has led to its decline as hunters kill more specimens and villagers capture live animals to hold for ransom. Unfortunately, the dichotomy of such measures has always been a problem for cryptozoologists. No less a singularity than the fabled Gloucester Sea Serpent was subject to its measure of admirers that flocked to see it and those men-in-their boats that chased it and shot at it until the serpent disappeared, never to be seen again.

 

References

Anon. 1993. Body found; mystery Vietnamese horns gain head and legs. BBC Wildlife 11: 60.

CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna). 2003. Appendix I, II, III as adopted by the Conference of the Parties, valid from 16 October 2003. 

Dung, V.V., P. M. Giao, N. N. Chinh, d. Tuoc, and J. MacKinnon. 1993. A new species of living bovid from Vietnam. Nature 363: 443-445.

Dung, V.V., P. M. Giao, N. N. Chinh, d. Tuoc, and J. MacKinnon. 1994. Discovery and Conservation of the Vu Quang ox in Vietnam. Oryx 28: 16-21. 

Hassanin, A., and E. J. P. Douzery. 1999. Evolutionary affinities of the enigmatic saola (Pseudoryz nghetinhensis) in the context of the molecular phylogeny of Bovidae.  Proceedings Royal Society of London B 266: 893-900.

Robichaud, W. G. 1998. Physical and behavorial description of a captive saola. Journal of Mammalogy 79: 394-405.

Schaller, G., and A. Rabinowitz. 1994. The saola or spindlehorn bovid Pseudoryx nghetinhensis in Laos. Oryx 29: 107-114.

Stone, Richard. 2006. The Saola’s Last Stand. Science 314: 1380-1383.

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