Saola Detection

An innovative approach to Saola detection in the Central Annamite Mountains of Vietnam

Awarded to Andrew Tilker, University of Texas – Austin

An innovative approach to Saola detection in the Central Annamite Mountains of Vietnam

Andrew Tilker
University of Texas – Austin

The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is an antelope found only in the Central Annamite Mountains of Vietnam, and is considered one of the world’s rarest and most elusive animals. Described in 1992 following a discovery of a skull, the saola has only been documented in the wild four times. Precise population estimates are unknown, but experts from the IUCN Wild Cattle Specialist Group believe its total population to number in the tens to a few hundred individuals. Almost nothing is known about the saola’s basic ecology, including habitat requirements and regional distribution within the Central Annamite Mountains. Without this information, conservationists cannot effectively plan for protected areas and anti-poaching efforts to help this enigmatic animal.

A main challenge in studying the saola is that its presence is difficult to detect with standard survey methods, due to its secretive nature, low densities, and the rugged terrain of its habitat. Sequoia Park Zoo is assisting Andrew Tilker in testing a novel and cost-effective method that uses DNA extracted from terrestrial haematophagous leeches to detect saola presence. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and World Wildlife Fund have recently discovered that the last mammal fed upon by a leech can be identified by extracting and sequencing DNA from the leech’s last blood meal and matching the sequences to known mammalian sequences. A preliminary test of 25 leeches was able to detect the presence of two large ungulate species, the serow (Capricornis milneedwardsii) and the Annamite dark muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis). In the summer of 2013, Andrew will conduct surveys in Bach Ma National Park to collect leeches and habitat data. Leeches will be sent to the University of Copenhagen for genetic analysis to determine if saola DNA can be detected, and occupancy analysis will be applied to the data to assess the saola’s habitat preferences and probability of occurrence across the landscape. A conservation grant from Sequoia Park Zoo is funding genetic analysis of the samples. If successful, this method could revolutionize the way in which mammalian biodiversity surveys are conducted, especially in the dense and rugged terrain of the Central Annamite Mountains where other survey methods have failed.

To learn more about the animal species of this Southeast Asian region, visit Saola Blog.