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Saving the 'Asian unicorn': Wildlife experts gather for pioneering conference

PUBLISHED: 17:43 14 June 2018 | UPDATED: 18:11 14 June 2018

An international conference is being held in Lowestoft to establish a strategy for saving the saola, a critically endangered type of cattle. Picture: Zoological Society of East Anglia

An international conference is being held in Lowestoft to establish a strategy for saving the saola, a critically endangered type of cattle. Picture: Zoological Society of East Anglia

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Renowned conservationists have gathered on the coast to discuss saving one of the world's critically endangered species.

David Field, the Zoological Society of East Anlglia chief executive. Picture: Antony KellyDavid Field, the Zoological Society of East Anlglia chief executive. Picture: Antony Kelly

In partnership with Kessingland wildlife park, Africa Alive!, the Zoological Society of East Anglia (ZSEA) is hosting an international conservation conference dedicated to the saola, a large mammal related to cattle.

The saola - residing mainly in Vietnam and Laos - was discovered as recently as 1992 and wasn’t photographed in the wild until 1999, making it extremely challenging to track and study.

This week’s conference, beginning yesterday at Lowestoft’s Hotel Victoria and concluding tomorrow, has brought together 20 world-leading conservation biologists and breeding specialists - including those from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and its Saola Working Group.

ZSEA chief executive David Field explained the group’s desire to form an effective strategy that ensures the ‘Asian unicorn’ does not die out.

“We simply don’t know how many saolas there are in the wild,” said Mr Field. “The last formal sighting was in 2013 and we’re trying to establish whether they still exist in this wonderful habitat on the Laos-Vietnam border.

The saola was discovered as recently as 1992 and is seldom photographed in the wild. Picture: Zoological Society of East AngliaThe saola was discovered as recently as 1992 and is seldom photographed in the wild. Picture: Zoological Society of East Anglia

“If there are some left, the issue is providing heavy protection because they are in such small numbers and the local animal snaring is putting them at severe risk.

“Conservation authorities have now agreed that the solution is to set up a rescue centre for saola, allowing us to breed them in safety over the next 20 years and protecting their habitats in the meantime so we can put them back in the wild.”

Mr Field also emphasised the prominent and far-reaching role that ZSEA and Africa Alive! can have when it comes to the conservation of animals.

“One of the most important roles a zoo can play is bringing people and animals closer together and, in places like Lowestoft with Africa Alive!, the zoo is an integral part of the community.

“ZSEA is particularly exciting because the society is young and dynamic, so there’s a real opportunity to make a difference in the world. Where Africa Alive!, animal manager Terry Hornsey and ZSEA fit in with the saola is translating zoo experience into the Vietnamese breeding centre.

“Local people should be incredibly proud of their zoo getting on the global conservation stage; Africa Alive! is responsible for making this meeting happen and putting Lowestoft on the map.”

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