Rare Video of a Rare Mammal: “Martha,” a Saola
by William deBuys
In 1992, members of a scientific biological survey team in Vietnam’s remote and mountainous Vu Quang district spotted a puzzling set of horns hanging on the wall of a hunter’s shack. The horns proved to belong to a large ungulate previously unknown to science. The new species, which was so singular it was also a new genus, was dubbed Pseudoryx nghetinhensis—pseudoryx for the superficial similarity of the long, tapered, nearly straight horns to those of the oryx of Arabia and Africa, and nghetinhensis for the region of Vietnam in which it was discovered.
In short order the animal was also determined to exist across the international border in Laos, and its common name, saola, has since become the only Lao word imported into English.
Saola are among the rarest large mammals on the planet, presently numbering (so it is conjectured) from a few dozen to at best a few hundred. They are known only from a limited habitat within the Annamite Mountains, which divide Laos from Vietnam. Still today, no westerner has glimpsed a saola in the wild.
In one dramatic instance in 1996, however, an adult female saola was briefly held in a small zoo or menagerie in the rough provincial town of Lak Xao in central Laos. Several biologists were privileged to observe it there, including William Robichaud, then the director of the Laos country program of the Wildlife Conservation Society and today coordinator of the Saola Working Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The short video clip offered here shows Robichaud with the captive saola, which he nicknamed “Martha.” The video, one of the few to show a living saola, was made available from the collection of LCAOF board member George Schaller and is believed to have been shot by Billy Karesh, head of the WCS field veterinary program, who traveled from New York to Lak Xao to attend to Martha. Unfortunately, the saola did not long survive her captivity. After less than three weeks in captivity, Martha died, probably as a result of a feeding regimen that was inadequate in diversity, freshness, and quantity.
Martha’s story is told in full in The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures by William deBuys, another LCAOF board member. The publishing house of Little, Brown & Co will release the book in March 2015.
In recent years LCAOF funding has helped to strengthen wildlife protection efforts in Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area in Laos, one of the most promising areas for survival of saola in the wild. For current information on efforts to save the saola from extinction, please visit the website of the Saola Working Group at www.savethesaola.org.