Peep into the past

A female Sao La belonging to a rare bovid species has been captured for scientific study in Laos's Annamite mountain range. Her discovery has given scientists a fantastic opportunity to delve into some of the animal world's well-kept secrets

Salute Sao La: the newly disco A 1992 SURVEY carried out by the Vietnamese ministry of forestry and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the Vu Quang Nature Reserve in central Vietnam,, led to the discovery of the unique creature. The animal could not be clearly identified as being either wild cattle or an antelope. It was something in between, possessing the characteristics of both. The animal's scientific name is Psuedoryx nghetinhensis. it belongs to the genus Psuedoryx because of its similarity in appearance to the African and Arabian oryxes (any of the three large antelopes of the genus Oryx). Nghetinhensis, the specific name, reflects its origin from the Nghe Tinh province in Vietnam, but the creature is simply called Sao La. Although the species' discoverers had earlier captured two of the kind, both perished as the scientists had no idea what to feed them.

Researchers from Laos and us, belonging to the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs) have now reportedly managed to trap a possibly pregnant female Sao La weighing almost 100 kg in the Annamite mountain range in eastern Laos. Nicknamed Martha, "the animal has a deep and well-defined profile, a remarkable and endearing tameness, and a pair of large scent glands along each side of the muzzle. Each gland is covered by a movable flap which can be raised like an awning," says Rob Timmins, a wildlife and habitat inventory specialist with the wcs. The bovid (belonging to the family bovidae of ruminants which include cattle, antelope and sheep) - characterised by its long and , nearly straight horns - is thought to be a descendent of an ancestral strain of hoofed mammals which split to evolve into two separate lines of extant mammals. One, of these being cattle and buffalo and the otiler, spiral-horned antelopes.

DNA studies conducted on the animal suggested that the new species was most closely related to oxen rather than other bovids. According to wildlife biologist George Schaller, further DNA stud- ies on the animal would be interesting not only, from a biological but even a geographical point of view because it might reveal the genetic similarity of the Sao La to other mammals in the world. Such comparisons would help trace the movements of different species over the ages.

Follow-up studies conducted by the team reveal certain habits;of the animal. Sao La is known to extensively feed on the leaves of the@ medicinal herb Homalomena aromatica growing along the banks of rocky streams. They also feed on some species of Ficus (a tree or shrub belonging to the mulberry family). About Martha being pregnant, scientists are not certain because they are not familiar with the species. But according to Schaller, "This would be the right time of the year for it to be so, to deliver the young one in spring."

For scientists, Martha is a source of knowledge and they intend developing a programme tailored to protect the species depending on what she reveals to them. The Sao La has been nominated to a list of endangered species by the Laotian government. The entire population in the Vu Quang Nature Reserve is estimated to be 100.

The discovery of the Sao La is not a freak discovery because the region has previously witnessed the spotting of other rare mammalian species. Such discoveries have prompted villagers to hunt these animals. Dog packs and deer snares are being employed in these hunting expeditions which may well mean bidding farewell to these just-discovered species. Their rarity is not the only reason why these creatures are the much-wanted variety. Villagers in the region also consurnewild boar, sambar and barking deer meat. Each hunter prepares 20 snares. Since snaring is not a selective form of hunting, the Sao La also get caught, killed and eaten. To the villagers, the Sao La represents just another form of meat.

The other thteat to the survival of the species focuses on their habitat. Development projects have been planned for the Annamite region in - Laos, including the construction of a controversial hydropower dam. With the shadows of these projects lurking in the background, biologists now fervently hope that their research ultimately finds the Sao La spread over a much larger area, so that the entire region would be treated with far more care. But as of now, the Laotian government would have to strengthen its conservation policies. However, Chantaviphone Inthavong of the Laotian department of forestry says, 11 Development and conservation go hand in hand. The only way we can ensure protection for this animal is to have sufficient funds to manage the national parks".

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