Asia’s Unicorn discovered in Laos and Vietnam

Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), a 200 pound, two-horned bovine, has roamed around the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam unbeknownst to humans until its discovery in 1992 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry. The large mammal has thus been given the nickname “Asian unicorn” due to its rarity.

The saola is a very rare forest-dwelling mammal whose behavior, breeding and diet still remain a mystery to scientists.

Since its discovery, scientists have had only two brief opportunities to study live specimens, once in 1996 and again in 2010. The live animals were brought into villages in Laos; however, in both instances the animals died shortly after being in captivity.

So far, the only other means of studying the elusive wild saola is through the use of camera traps. Recently this fall, WWF’s camera trap took an astonishing image of the large mammal traipsing through a protected area in Vietnam; this was the first sighting of a saola in the country in 15 years.

This camera trap photo with saola on the far right confirms the species existence in Vietnam. Photo by: WWF.

These large mammals are threatened by illegal poaching, habitat loss, snares set up by local hunters for other animals, hunting dogs, and new road construction that cuts through forests.

The threat of extinction looms heavily over the Asian unicorn with scientists estimating their population size ranging from a few hundred to a mere dozen animals. Even grimmer, the IUCN Red List predicts the remaining number of animals as being too small to be considered a population.

Yet, conservationists are not giving up hope. In 2011, the Vietnamese government created the Saola Nature Reserve and programs in both countries have been set up to combat illegal poaching and remove hunting snares in the species territories.

Since the establishment of protection programs, forest guard patrols have destroyed over 600 illegal hunting camps and removed over 30,000 snares in saola habitat.

A female saola that was brought into a Laos village in 1996, nicknamed Martha. She died within a few days. Photo by: © William Robichaud.
A female saola that was brought into a Laos village in 1996, nicknamed Martha. She died within a few days. Photo by: © William Robichaud.

The most recent WWF camera trap images confirm the existence of saola in Vietnam and are positive feedback for the extensive conservation efforts. Scientists hope the saola story will stimulate other conservation programs within the region that will also protect the endangered large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) and the Truong Son muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis).

Want to learn more?  Read the full story here – Asia’s ‘unicorn’ photographed in Vietnam

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