Thursday, 4 May 2017

In search of the elusive saola - via Richard Freeman

Bill Robichaud fights to save one of the world’s rarest creatures

by Catherine Capellaro

April 6, 2017

When one the most important zoological discoveries of the century was announced in 1992, field biologist Bill Robichaud happened to be sitting in a noodle shop in Vientiane, Laos, reading the Bangkok Post. The article had an inset map showing the location of a Vietnamese village where a set of long, tapered horns — unlike any known to science — were found in a hunter’s shack. “I thought, that thing’s in Laos, for sure,” says Robichaud. “Three days later I was down on a bus to that part of Laos.” By now, we have a name for the mysterious cloven-hoofed creature, the saola (pronounced sow-LAH).

The importance of that discovery still animates Robichaud, who studied zoology at UW-Madison and now lives outside Barneveld. It turns out the saola is the only surviving line of a genus of bovid, a grazing animal related to cattle, bison, goats and antelopes. “This wasn’t a new species of something else; this was an entirely new type of mammal that doesn’t look like anything else, and it had gone undetected,” says Robichaud. “Even the Vietnamese biologists in Hanoi didn’t know about it. And villagers didn’t know it was anything special. I think it was, without doubt, the most surprising zoological find of the 20th century.”

Robichaud assumed some superstar biologists would latch onto the project and make the saola their life’s work. A natural candidate would be George Schaller, who had studied tigers, mountain gorillas, jaguars and giant pandas. The subject of Peter Matthiessen’s adventure tale The Snow Leopard had been a mentor and colleague of Robichaud’s at the Bronx Zoo Wildlife Conservation Society. “I just said, ‘George, you’ve defined your career by being the first guy to do the first-ever field study of large, unknown mammals. Why aren’t you settling down in Laos and making saola your retirement project?’” Schaller’s reply: “How can you study an animal you can’t even see?” So Robichaud seized the opportunity to study the rare and elusive creature. “I just kept waiting for someone to take this over, and nobody did, so I just did it by default.” Robichaud now coordinates a massive international effort to save the saola from imminent extinction.


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