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ASIA: One of World’s Rarest Animals in Danger of Extinction

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 11 2009 (IPS) - Conservationists are raising the alarm about the fate of an animal in South-east Asia’s growing list of endangered wildlife, even though the animal in need of saving was only discovered in a remote mountainous corner of Laos in 1992.

The Saola, which has been named on an international list of ‘critically endangered’ species, has long horns that slope backwards and belongs to the wild cattle family.

This threat to "one of the world’s most enigmatic mammals" stems from traps set by hunters and poachers in the Annamite Mountains, according to the Geneva-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s oldest environmental organisation.

"The Saola’s increasing proximity to extinction is likely paralleled by only two or three other large mammal species in Southeast Asia, such as the Javan Rhinoceros," added IUCN, quoting conservationists who gathered at a recent meeting in Laos aimed at saving this quiet, gentle and rare animal from extinction.

"The Saola has no value like the tiger or the elephant – high-value animals that are sought by hunters and poachers," says William Robichaud, coordinator of the Saola working group of the IUCN Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group. "But they (saolas) are sometimes killed by the snares set by poachers trying to kill the high-value animals."

"The Saola population is very small," revealed Robichaud during a telephone interview from Laos, a landlocked country that is South-east Asia’s poorest nation. "We don’t know exactly how many are left, but it is probably only a few hundreds at most, maybe only a few dozen."

The urgency to prolong the life of such a rare species stems from its absence in captivity, unlike other threatened animals, such as the tiger. "There are no Saolas found in any zoos of the world, and they have proved very difficult to keep in captivity," added Robichaud. "So if they are all killed in the wild, the world will not have any evidence of this species left."

Saving this species means a campaign to "remove poachers’ snares and (the) reduction of hunting with dogs in key areas of the Annamite forests," declared the experts at the meeting in Vientiane, the Laotian capital. "Improved methods to detect Saola in the wild and radio tracking to understand the animal’s conservation needs are needed."

Some conservationists are drawing parallels with the Kouprey, a species of wild cattle that was found only in the corner of South-east Asia shared by Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The Kouprey is reported to have become extinct over the last two decades.

Efforts to save the Saola is the latest in a drive by conservationists alarmed at the threat to South-east Asia’s wildlife, which are much sought after in places like China and other parts of East Asia for medicinal purposes. There is also a growing demand for exotic meats served at restaurants.

"China is a big consumer of wildlife for traditional medicinal use and also for food in restaurants," says Chris Shephered, senior programme officer of the South-east Asia office of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade-monitoring network. "Wild meat restaurants are very popular in many parts of East Asia and South-east Asia."

"These restaurants that offer illegal and very rare wildlife on their menus are becoming more fashionable," Shephered said during a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur, where the regional TRAFFIC office is based. "This is a growing concern."

But that is not all. The region’s very rare birds and reptiles are also shipped to buyers in the developed world as part of the "exotic pet trade," added Shepherd. "There is a high demand for exotic pets in Japan, Europe and the U.S."

In July, for instance, TRAFFIC revealed the seizure of a large number of pangolins, a scaly, toothless anteater. "They included 24 tonnes of frozen pangolins from Sumatra, Indonesia, seized in Vietnam this March, and 14 tonnes of frozen animals seized in Sumatra in April."

"Illegal trade in Asian pangolin meat and scales has caused the scaly anteaters to disappear from large swathes of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos," a TRAFFIC report noted. "China has a long history of consuming pangolin(s) as meat and in traditional medicine."

Efforts to go after poachers and hunters driving this lucrative wildlife trade – described as the third most profitable trade after narcotics and human trafficking — received a boost in December 2005. That month, the 10 countries that belong to the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), an over 40-year-old regional bloc, signed an agreement to share information to counter the illegal wildlife trade.

ASEAN’s members, which include Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, have been fingered for alleged complicity in many stages of this trade. These include being the source of the wildlife, the country where the animals are illegally transported to the countries demanding wildlife for food and medicine.

A 2005 World Bank study shed some light on how profitable this trade was. The wildlife trade in Vietnam in 2002 was estimated at 66.5 million U.S. dollars, while the 2004 seizure of 31 skins of tigers in China was worth more than 1.2 million U.S. dollars, the Bank revealed in ‘Going, Going Gone: The Illegal Trade in Wildlife in East Asia and Southeast Asia’.

Pangolins from Laos have been in heavy demand, the report noted, adding that between 1993 and 2003, over 80 pangolin skins were illegally exported from Laos to international markets, "primarily in the United States and Mexico."

Yet while the Saola has not been trapped for such export – largely because the animal has been unknown to the traditional illegal wildlife markets – the areas this antelope-looking animal inhabits are home to wildlife that poachers and hunters seek.

The Annamite mountains, with their thick, dense and damp forest cover, which straddles the Laos-Vietnam border, are where tigers, wild cats, monkeys, gibbons, pangolins and bears can be found. "They are the animals that feed the illegal wildlife trade," says a conservationist

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