Gloomy to great

Published: November 6, 2017

Edwards's-pheasant-ShutterstockConservation can be depressing. Ask anyone who works in the field and they’ll provide an example of a species in decline or a new challenge to resolve. This was most recently brought home to me at the beginning of October, when I read a letter (published September 14) in the journal ‘Science’ regarding the saola.

In a previous life, before WWCT, I often described the saola to students as ‘the biggest animal you’ve never heard of’ and if it’s a name you’re unfamiliar with then I urge you to Google it. In terms of animal favourites, I veer towards the ectothermic, but the saola has always held a special fascination and I’ve followed the conservation efforts directed towards it with great interest.

I can distinctly remember reading about the discovery of the Vu-Quang ox (as it was then called) in a 1992 edition of BBC Wildlife. It amazed me that something so big could go unnoticed for so long and gave added impetus to my early ambitions to work in zoos and conservation. I was studying for A-Levels at the time and held out a hope that one day I’d be able to see a saola for myself; either in a zoo or in the wilds of the Vietnamese Annamite Mountains where they reportedly lived.

Fast forward 25 years and to the subject of the letter in Science. Sadly, it seems that those teenage ambitions may never come to fruition, as the consensus view of the expert authors was that the species may now be on the very cusp of extinction. Due primarily to intensive trapping for bushmeat, the wild population is estimated to be less than 100 (possibly just a few dozen) and the remaining animals may already be too widely distributed, and their habitat too fragmented, for a recovery to be possible.

Previous attempts at keeping the saola in captivity have been unsuccessful, however this option is now being proposed as a last ditch effort to bring the species back from the edge. From scientific discovery to near extinction in a quarter of a century – that’s about half the time it took for ancient mariners to wipe out the dodo. As I said; depressing.

The story of the saola serves to remind us of the enormity of the challenge facing conservationists, as well as highlighting the potential role of captive breeding and the expertise of the zoo community in contributing to this struggle. I mentioned at the beginning that if the name ‘saola’ was unfamiliar, you should Google it. Ever the optimist, I remain hopeful that in the future, typing the name saola into a search engine will result in news of how well this amazing animal is now doing and not, as is currently feared, a reference to another species now extinct.

Whilst October may have started with a conservation ‘trough’, it closed with a peak. If you’re still on Google finding out about saola, open up another tab and search for Bolitoglossa jacksoni. More obscure even than the saola, Jackson’s climbing salamander is a species that had not been seen at all since its discovery in Guatemala in 1975. And yet, in October of this year, after 42 years of absence, one was found. As salamanders go, it’s a stunner; with bright yellow stripes and feet that remind me of a cartoon character, its rediscovery provides welcome respite from the many gloomy messages surrounding amphibian conservation.

It’s a reminder that there is good news out there and there is good work being done. That WWCT contributes to this good work is without question. We may not work directly with the saola but we do great things in Vietnam with civets and we’re planning more with Edward’s pheasants. We’re unlikely to ever get to work with Jackson’s climbing salamander, but we do great things for amphibians elsewhere. Conservation can be depressing but there are good news stories to be told. It will be these stories that inspire the next generation of conservationists to join us in our work and it will be these stories we’ll aim to tell to our guests.

Steve Nash, WWCT Head of Education