Rare mammal faces extinction threat: experts

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Conservation groups are sounding the alarm yet again about the extinction threat faced by the sao la, one of the world's rarest mammals, because of hectic poaching and poor management at nature reserves.

The WWF, the Saola Working Group of the IUCN/SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group and the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a May 21 release that the sao la remains as mysterious and elusive as ever two decades after its sensational discovery.

A cousin of cattle, but recalling an antelope in appearance, the sao la was discovered in 1992 at the Vu Quang Nature Reserve near Vietnam's border with Laos by a joint survey team of what was then Ministry of Forestry and the WWF.

The team found a skull with unusual long, straight horns in a hunter's home and knew it was something extraordinary. It turned out be one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.

Twenty years on, little is known about the sao la. In 2010, villagers in the central Lao province of Bolikhamsai captured one of them, but the animal died several days later. Earlier, the last confirmed record of a sao la in the wild was in 1999 through camera-trap photos in Bolikhamsai.

"Sao la are extremely secretive and very seldom seen," said Nick Cox, manager of WWF's Species Program in the Greater Mekong.

"While they inhabit a very restricted range, there is still no reported sighting of a sao la in the wild by a scientist, and the handful of sao la that have been taken into captivity have not survived."

The difficulty in detecting the animal has prevented scientists from making a precise population estimate. "If things are good, there may be a couple of hundred sao la out there," said William Robichaud, coordinator of the sao la Working Group. "If things are bad, the population could now be down in the tens."

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While infrastructure development is encroaching on the sao la's habitat, the greatest threat comes from illegal poaching. Sao la are usually caught in wire snares set by hunters to catch other animals like stags, deer and wild boars.

"Paradoxically, the sao la seems to be one of the few vertebrates in the Annamites without a high price on its head," added Robichaud. "Sao la are caught largely as bycatch like the tuna and dolphin scenario."

Vietnam and Laos have established a network of nature reserves in the animal's core range and some reserves are pursuing "innovative approaches" to tackle rampant poaching, the press release said.

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