Searching for the Saola in the Annamite Mountains

On the border of Laos and Vietnam roams a creature so elusive that it has never been seen in the wild by a biologist. The Saola was discovered by science in 1992, after researchers came across the skull of a Saola in a hunter’s house in a remote village in Vietnam. The unusual horns were a clue that they had found evidence of an entirely new species, which spurred conservationists into action. 

This Critically Endangered species lives in the Annamite Mountains in Vietnam and Laos, where their biggest threat is poaching—they get caught in the snares set out for other animals. Re:wild supports and works alongside the Saola Working Group (SWG) and local partners to protect the Saola and its habitat.

A captive female Saola in Lak Xao, Boikhamxay Province, Laos in 1996. (Photo courtesy of William Robichaud)

The Saola Working Group is working to save Saola using the IUCN One Plan Approach. The approach is necessary for species like Saola, which scientists estimate may only have 20 individuals left in the wild—not enough to support a viable population. The One Plan Approach integrates conservation breeding under human care and protecting the species in the wild into a single conservation program. Combined, the two components help the species’ long-term conservation.

Breeding for the Future

For a highly threatened species like the Saola, it is imperative to begin conservation breeding as soon as possible. The governments of Vietnam and Laos have agreed to work together on a Saola conservation breeding program. By their joint consent, the world’s first conservation breeding center for rare Annamite species will be established at Vietnam’s Bach Ma National Park, with the Saola as the flagship species for the program which is supported by a consortium of international zoos led by Wroclaw Zoo. 

Rangers with wire snares. (Photo courtesy of William Robichaud)

While the upcoming conservation breeding plans for Saola are very much focused on bringing that species back from the brink of extinction, if it’s successful it will have cascading conservation effects for other endemic species that make this region so special, such as Large-antlered muntjac and Annamite Striped Rabbit.

Rewilding Saola

Though in the short-term, wild Saola may have to enter a conservation breeding program to keep the species from going extinct, the long-term survival of the Saola depends on securing safe areas for them in the wild, which will pave the way for future reintroductions. Re:wild and partners are working to prevent poaching of any Saola (and other animals) in specific target areas—a lofty goal. That means ensuring there are no snares in intensively patrolled areas, so that these areas can become a safe haven for rare species such as the Saola, Large-antlered Muntjac, and others.

A camera trap photo of a Large-antlered Muntjac. (Photo courtesy of Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research / WWF-Vietnam / USAID / Song Thanh Nature Reserve)

Saving Saola Together

Re:wild helps mentor and train national conservation leaders and biologists in Vietnam and Laos to ensure that the Annamites will have guardians to protect its species for generations to come.

While the Saola is one of the most distinctive and endangered large mammals in the world, it has an image problem—because there are so few images of it! Since the species is so elusive and comparatively few people are aware of the animal and the urgency of its conservation, Re:wild is working to develop partnerships and raise international attention for the species. 

Top photo: A wild Saola camera-trapped in central Laos in Bolikhamxay Province in 1999.
(Photo courtesy of William Robichaud)


Wild Facts

  • Though known to local communities in Laos and Vietnam, the Saola was only discovered by science in 1992.

  • No biologist has ever seen a Saola in the wild. The only images of it in the wild are from camera traps.

  • Saola have two long, slender horns with distinctive white markings on their faces.

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There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the interrelated crises of wildlife extinctions, climate change and pandemics. Re:wild works with local and Indigenous communities, conservation partners, governments and others to solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Our Saola conservation work includes any combination of the following solutions:

protected area management

We work to improve management of protected and conserved areas to ensure a safe and equitable future for biodiversity and local communities.

Wildlife crime prevention

Developing community-led and owned prevention strategies that take into account the societal and cultural drivers of wildlife crime, and implementing systems and technology to stop poachers before a crime is even committed.

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conservation breeding, translocations and reintroductions

Creating insurance populations to prevent extinction and active management of wildlife populations to help restore them to healthy and self-sustainable numbers across their natural range.

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The plan

The Plan

Under the One Plan Approach, conservation breeding under human care and protecting the species in the wild are integrated into a single conservation program, with the two components working together for the species’ long-term conservation.

# of individuals:

Around 20

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