The shy, distinctive and incredibly beautiful saola, is called the ‘polite animal’ by locals. To many, though, it is the symbol of what will be lost if wildlife crimes are allowed to continue to run rampant across Southeast Asia.
Sightings of this peculiar bovid are extremely rare. The species has probably existed for more than eight million years but despite that, it was only formally discovered by scientists less than 25 years ago.
A WWF team led by Dr Do Tuoc in 1992 during an expedition to the Annamite Mountains, the range which links Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, found the first living example of the much sought after beast. Not only was it the first wild example of the species found by scientists, it was also an entirely new genus of bovid.
The one-metre tall Pseudoryx nghetinhensis became a natural history star. William duBuys wrote a book about its discovery called The Last Unicorn and it was dubbed the rarest mammal on the planet. And sightings in recent years are, along with most other wild animals in this once bountiful forest region, an increasingly rare occurrence.
Andrew Tilker from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Berlin) came to the region hoping to study the saola. ‘In the four years I have been studying the Annamites I have only seen three animals in the wild,' he says. ‘A wild pig, a species of leopard and the Annamite striped rabbit which became the object of my dissertation. I had planned to study the saola, but it’s hard to study something you're not even sure exists. This was one of the world’s greatest places for wildlife. That was why I came. Today there are big areas of forest that are completely empty.’
That amazing species such as the saola may become extinct before anything much is known about them is a well-kept secret among the global community of conservation biologists.
‘The conflict we face is between announcing our finds and attracting poachers or to keep it quiet. We opt for quiet,’ says William Robichaud, Global Wildlife Conservation’s Saola Conservation Program Coordinator, with more than 20 years in the region.
Conservationists working in the area are facing an all-too grim reality. The business of poaching is thriving as the region’s economies grow. This is not a function of poverty however – more a result of growing wealth.
‘Poverty? That’s a load of hooey,’ Robichaud laughs. ‘Of course it’s wealth. Asia in particular has a culture of giving impressive gifts to seal deals. The more expensive, the more the flattery. A tusk, a rhino horn...’
Tilker points out that bush meat, once subsistence food, is now considered a fashionable luxury by the region's wealthier clients. Its price in the Mahaxai market in central Laos is twice that of pork and buffalo.
Another relentless economic force is also coming into play as the forests become stripped of animals – that of scarcity. It’s pushing up prices even further, encouraging criminals to continue their trade. A golden turtle was recently sold to a Vietnamese middleman for $24,000 – in 2011 the price would have been no more than $4,000. Today there is a sad refrain among the people of the Annamites – ‘One turtle for one Toyota Hilux’.
CAUGHT IN A TRAP
Many fear the saola has already fallen foul of these forces. In 2015, partners in the Saola Working Group collected 37,000 snares (the total number collected in the five years of SWG field operations is a staggering 127,000). They are cheap and effective and, as Dr Camille Coudrat, founder and director of Project ANOULAK, an initiative dedicated to the conservation of the wildlife of Laos, explains, the law is not entirely clear on their use: ‘Villagers are allowed to set up snares only for local consumption but not for trade. But only in “forest use zones” not in the “total protection zones” and only for species that are not “Prohibited”.’ Of course, snares are not selective, so there’s no control over this.
‘Snares are set up by local villagers for middlemen, in most cases Vietnamese,’ continues Coudrat. ‘Where the middleman is Lao he usually sells to the Vietnamese. The middlemen provide snare components – bicycle brake cables – and techniques. They set up along long fences with openings every few metres. When the animals pass they step on the trigger that traps its leg.’
Tilker adds: ‘In Vietnam, there are expert gangs of poachers that set thousands – hundreds of thousands – of snares inside a protected area. These well-trained hunters go to great lengths to construct brush fences that can extend for several kilometres. These guys are professionals. The end market depends on species. Common “meat” species like wild pig or muntjac are sold to restaurants. Bush meat restaurants can be found in virtually every medium-sized town in Vietnam. High-value species, like pangolin, are passed on to middlemen and subsequently make their way into the larger cities or up into China.’
‘Every species has different trade value,’ adds Coudrat. ‘So of course they [the poachers] will try for the most valuable species. The species mostly sought after right now are: pangolins, turtles, civets, porcupines, and muntjacs. Tigers, of course, are a must, but they are gone from Nakai-Nam Theun, so they’re not a target species anymore. Doucs are also sought after but are usually shot rather than trapped.’
As Robichaud puts it, ‘Snares don’t have eyes.’ They take everything that comes. Saola are ‘bycatch’ as are other non-saleable animals. ‘Some animals are taken and eaten, while others are just left to hang and rot,’ he says.
One biologist we spoke to (who asked not to be identified) confesses: ‘I have seen so much cruelty in the mountains. The way they kill is cruel. Many species just die lingering deaths for no reason. We find the decomposed carcasses, often avenues of them in the forest. They die for what?’
Greg McCann of Habitat ID recently wrote: ‘The poachers will not stop until they have killed every last animal.’ This one sentence is full of rage. McCann had camera-trapped Vietnamese poachers in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park, who would return night after night to shoot animals and lay snares. The park forms the Cambodian tail of the Annamite Mountains.
And this trade is spreading its tentacles. ‘Interestingly, Vietnamese poachers are, I am told, turning up in far-flung places such as Borneo – to target high-value species like the pangolin,’ reports Tilker. As the Greater Mekong Subregion (especially Vietnam) empties, hunters are increasingly looking towards other locations. Thailand park rangers in the Hua Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary, recently arrested three Vietnamese poachers.
One of the biggest drivers of the exploitation of wildlife in the region is the economic growth being seen across Southeast Asia.
‘Roads are the death of protected areas because they open up forests to poachers,’ explains Tilker. ‘Recently I conducted extensive fieldwork in a central protected area where a road was being built. The road crews were snaring extensively. That area was more or less wiped out [of remaining big mammals] during the few months it took us to survey the area.’
Robichaud agrees: ‘Roads, roads, roads. If you’re an animal bigger than a breadbox and not more than a day, or half day’s walk from a road, your days are basically numbered.’
He adds: ‘We are in such a catastrophic place right now we have to work intensively just to keep things alive. Forget climate change. It’s like trying to save the foundations when the house is on fire. We can’t keep the poachers out. The wildlife trade has so much money and is so well organised.’
‘We have to challenge cultural values to stop the killing,’ reiterates Tilker. ‘But that is a long-term project. In the short-term we have to get as many critically endangered species as we can into captive breeding. We have the science, we have the endangered animal list, but we cannot guarantee the safety of the animals. Many regional farms have been shown to be for commercial breeding not conservation.’
To compound matters those in positions of power with responsibility to protect wildlife in the region are sometimes complicit in the illegal trade.
It is alleged that collusion between the area’s militaries and political elite protect well-known criminals such as those implicated in the ‘Tiger Temple’ debacle in the Sai Yok district of Thailand earlier this year – a Buddhist temple that was tasked with running a zoo on its land, but was instead found to be engaging in wildlife trafficking and forest encroachment.
The IUCN has stated that Southeast Asia deserves global priority as mass extinctions become reality, not prophecy. It was even suggested that hotspots be designated World Heritage Zones to help enforce their protection.
Meanwhile the plight of the ‘polite animal’ worsens. Researchers such as Robichard fear they may never encounter another wild saola. He told me about the first time he met a saola that was named ‘Martha’. ‘It was the most poignant moment of my life,’ he remembers. ‘I’m a raptor man by training, but nothing prepared me for the personal connection I had with Martha. She was the tamest wild animal I had ever met. Some animals from the dense forest are like that. She allowed me to measure her and she did not flinch. They have not evolved with natural predators or with human contact. But that has all changed.’
This was published in the September 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.