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Scientists hunt ‘Asian unicorn’, one of the world’s rarest animals

WWeighing in at 80-100 kg and with long straight horns, white spots on its face and large scent glands on its face, the saola does not sound like an animal that is difficult to recognize. But it wasn’t until 1992 that this elusive creature was discovered and became the first large mammal new to science in over 50 years.

Nicknamed the “Asian unicorn”, the saola remains elusive. They have never been seen in the wild by a biologist and have only been captured with cameras a handful of times. There are reports that villagers tried to keep them in captivity, but they died after a few weeks, probably as a result of the wrong diet.

It was during a wildlife survey at the remote Vũ Quang Nature Reserve, a 212-square-mile forest area in north-central Vietnam, in 1992 that biologist Do Tuoc came across two skulls and a pair of trophy horns that belonged to an unknown animal.

Twenty more specimens were then collected, including complete hides, and in 1993 lab tests revealed that the animal was not just a new species, but an entirely new genus in the bovine family, which included cattle, sheep, goats and antelope.

Initially called Vu Quang Ox, the animal was later called saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) – meaning “spindle horns”, the arms or poles (sao) of a spinning wheel (la) according to Lao-speaking ethnic groups in Laos and neighboring Vietnam.

A saola photographed by a camera trap in Laos in 1999. Photo: William Robichaud

The discovery was hailed as one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century, but less than 30 years later, the saola population is believed to have declined dramatically due to commercial wildlife poaching, which has exploded in Vietnam since 1994. While the saola is not a direct target of poachers, intensive commercial snares supplying animals for use in traditional Asian medicine or as bushmeat is the main threat.

Despite efforts to improve patrolling wildlife reserves in the Annamite Mountains, a large mountain range that stretches about 680 miles through Laos, Vietnam and northeast Cambodia, poaching has intensified. “Thousands of people use snares, so there are millions of them in the forest, meaning populations of large mammals and some birds have no way of escaping and collapsing into the Annamites,” said Minh Nguyen, a doctoral candidate at Colorado State University who studies the impact of snares on the critically endangered large-antlered muntjac.

In 2001, the saola population was estimated at 70 to 700 in Laos and several hundred in Vietnam. More recently, experts have put the number on less than 100 – a decline that led to the species being listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2006, the highest risk category a species can face before extinction in the wild. The animal was last captured with a camera in 2013 in the Saola Nature Reserve in central Vietnam. Since then, villagers have continued to report its presence in areas in and around Pu Mat National Park in Vietnam and in Laos’ Bolikhamxay Province.

In 2006, William Robichaud and Simon Hedges, a biologist and specialist in conservation and countering wildlife trafficking in Asia and Africa, co-founded the Saola working group (SWG) with the aim of finding the last saolas in the wild for a captive breeding program to reintroduce the species to the wild in the future, in a natural habitat that is free of threats.

The SWG connects conservation organizations in Laos and Vietnam to raise awareness, gather information from local people and search for saola. But the animals continue to evade the team. Between 2017 and 2019, the SWG conducted an intensive search of 300 camera traps in an 11-square-mile area of ​​the Khoun Xe Nongma National Protected Area in Laos. Not one of the million photos Saola took.

According to the IUCN, only about 30% of Saola’s potential habitat has had some form of wildlife exploration and potentially as little as 2% has been intensively searched for the species. Technologies limit the possibilities – camera traps are not good at detecting individual animals scattered over a wide area, especially in the moist, dense forest of the Saola Mountains. In August this year, the IUCN Species Survival Commission called for more investment in the search for the saola. “Clearly, search efforts need to be significantly stepped up in scale and intensity if we are to save this species from extinction,” said Nerissa Chao, director of the IUCN SSC Asian Species Action Partnership.

Saola eats leaves by author Veronika Perková for her podcast How to save saola
A drawing of a saola eating leaves. Photo: Veronika Perková

an organisation, Saola . Foundation, is raising money for a new initiative that would train dogs to detect saola characters such as dung. All samples would then be studied on site using rapid saola-specific DNA field test kits being developed in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Molecular Laboratory in New York. If the kits yield a positive result within an hour, expert wildlife trackers will look for saola in the forest.

If successful, captured saolas will be transferred to a captive breeding center being developed by the SWG and the Vietnamese government in Bạch Mã National Park in central Vietnam.

“We are at a moment in conservation history,” said Robichaud, chairman of the Saola Foundation. “We know how to find and rescue this magnificent animal, which may have been on Earth for 8 million years. We just need the world to come together and support the effort. It will not cost much, and the reward, for saola, for the Annamite mountains and for ourselves, will be enormous.”

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