The Great Challenge of Conserving the Saola

by Serda Ozbenian

This summer, I traveled to Vietnam to help facilitate and document a snare removal workshop for rangers from Vietnam’s Forest Protection Department (FPD) as part of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL) initiative. The 5-day workshop was the result of over a year of planning with workshop partners as part of a campaign to conserve the critically endangered saola, a wild ox found only in the Annamite Mountains on the border of Vietnam and Laos.

Ten rangers from three different provincial districts, representing a third of all the rangers responsible for patrolling saola habitat, attended the workshop—which included examining threats, data collection and management, social marketing techniques, community engagement, and the development of conservation goals. Breakout sessions to explore the many challenges rangers face—from rough terrain, hostility from local communities, and lack of resources—were particularly beneficial.

Two days were spent in the forest inside a proposed 121 km2 saola conservation area in Quang Nam Province to practice snare removal techniques and GPS and data reporting skills. Our drive took us along the enormous Ho Chi Minh Highway where we witnessed an active forest fire, serious erosion, and polluted water from gold mining activities—all threats to the saola and other wildlife. The highway itself has fragmented habitats as it cuts straight through the forest. Following a tipoff, we located a snare line a short hike from the highway and removed over 30 snares and a handful of steel-jaw leghold traps.

Hiking through the exceptionally steep, mountainous terrain, it became immediately evident how difficult the rangers' job really is. The snares are constructed with readily available sticks and bicycle wire, and are set by local people to catch wildlife for domestic consumption, as well as by commercial hunters who sell the meat to restaurants. Saola are caught as bycatch in these indiscriminate traps set out for other species like pangolin, gibbon, civet, bear and tiger. The demand for Vietnam’s wildlife for the pet trade, food, and traditional medicine is wreaking havoc on the lush and once productive ecosystem, and creating a phenomenon called "empty forest syndrome" in which pristine forests are denuded of wildlife.

On the final day, we visited a village and discussed hunting and agricultural land use with community members. Upon completion of the workshop, we met with higher level FPD officials to report on the workshop and provide recommendations. The FPD understands the importance of conserving the saola but they face a daunting task; more rangers, training, resources and organized patrolling efforts are needed to preserve Vietnam’s rare and exploited wildlife. Less than 200 saola remain as a precarious symbol of Vietnam’s enormous challenge to preserve its biodiversity.

Funding for the workshop was provided by the Russell E. Train Education for Nature Fund and the EWCL Board.