I thought when I first saw it that this BBC report was going to be a happy story. But if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t be reading about it here.
Villagers from the Annamite Mountains near Vietnam in the central Laotian province of Bolikhamxay captured and photographed the above-pictured male saola, one of the rarest large mammals on Earth. According to Brent Huffman, Toronto zoologist, the saola, Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, a bovine (member of the bovid subfamily Bovinae), is the most recently discovered large mammal. It is so distinctive that it required the erection of a new genus, Pseudoryx. Huffman puts the saola in a separate tribe of bovines called Pseudorygini, but others put it in the tribe of Bovini. A phylogeny of the Bovini (which includes cattle, bison and buffalo) was constructed based on AFLP fingerprinting and published as JB Buntjer, M Otsen, IJ Nijman, MTR Kuiper and JA Lenstra, “Phylogeny of bovine species based on AFLP fingerprinting,” 88 Heredity 46 (2002) (and is freely downloadable as a pdf file, surprisingly since Heredity is a Nature Group publication). The phylogeny does not specifically deal with saola, however.
This artiodactyl (or more precisely cetartiodactyl) is about 1.5 meters long and stands about 80-90 centimeters at the shoulders. Its coat is said to be “a deep chestnut brown, with individuals varying from a rich reddish brown to almost black.” Huffman says that “[t]he form of the saola is similar to that of other forest-dwelling ungulates such as duikers, with a compact body and hunched back adapted for moving through dense cover.”
I have copied Huffman’s range map at the left. Huffman’s excellent detailed summary of the existing research on the physical characteristics, reproduction and development, ecology, behavior and distribution should be consulted by anyone interested in more information on this animal. In fact, his site, Ungulates of the World, should be the first stop of any person who has a question about the hoofed mammals. (While he acknowledges the common ancestry of whales and artiodactyls, he only deals with ungulates as commonly understood.)
With respect to the particular specimen that the BBC reported on, although the villagers notified the Bolikhamxay Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office, by the time representatives arrived the animal had died.
The BBC notes that no biologist has ever seen the animal in the wild and that no specimens are in captivity now. The article quotes Pierre Comizzoli, a veterinarian with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and a member of the IUCN Saola Working Group, that at most a few hundred of the animal exist and possibly as few as a few dozen. IUCN Red List lists the saoli as “critically endangered,” the most endangered category of animals living in the wild and it means that there is an “extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.”
Update [9/17]: The World Wildlife Fund has issued a press release on Eurekalert!