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Science & Technology

Peep into the past

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Mar 31, 1996 | From the print edition
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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