One of the world's rarest and least-known mammals risks extinction in the next few years if steps are not immediately taken to preserve it, according to experts speaking at an emergency meeting of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), a kind of ox or cattle that looks more like an antelope, was discovered by science in 1992, and was declared critically endangered soon afterward. It exists only in a small section of the Annamite Mountains, which straddle the border between Laos and Vietnam. Only a few dozen saolas, at most 100, had initially been thought to live in these remote valleys. Just a few years ago, that number was estimated at closer to 1,000.

"We are at a point in history when we still have a small but rapidly closing window of opportunity to conserve this extraordinary animal," says William Robichaud, coordinator of the IUCN's Saola Working Group, in a prepared statement. "That window has probably already closed for another species of wild cattle, the kouprey, and experts at this meeting are determined that the saola not be next." (There is some debate, however, over whether the extinct kouprey, Bos sauveli, really was a species of its own or just a hybrid of other cattle species.)

According to IUCN experts, hunting is the primary threat saola face. Dogs are used to bring down the animals, which have no natural defenses against that type of predator.

Other factors affecting the saola's decline, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, include habitat loss and the newly constructed Ho Chi Minh Road through the mountains, which has fragmented the animal's habitat and made it easier for humans to reach the otherwise inhospitable area.

Biologists at the emergency meeting called for radio tracking of the few remaining saola, to create a better understanding of their movements and needs in the wild. They also emphasized that the species cannot continue to exist if poachers' snares are not removed and hunting with dogs is not reduced in the area. They also pointed out the need to increase awareness of the species in Vietnam and Laos and to increase donations to help support conservation efforts.

If the species goes extinct in the wild, that's it for the saola. "Saola have rarely been seen or photographed, and have proved difficult to keep alive in captivity," said Barney Long of the IUCN Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group in a prepared statement. "None is held in any zoo, anywhere in the world."

The members of the Saola Working Group include staffers from the Laos and Vietnam forestry departments, Vietnam's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, and Vinh University, along with biologists and conservationists from nongovernmental organizations, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund.

Image: Saola stamp from Vietnam. Via