In the two decades after its discovery, the fascinating saola, sometimes known as the Asian unicorn, has remained a mystery. In captivity, there are none, and this rarely seen species is already critically endangered. Only four times has saola been categorically documented in the wild by scientists.
- STATUS: Critically Endangered
- POPULATION: Unknown
- SCIENTIFIC NAME: Pseudoryx nghetinhensis
- HEIGHT: Average 33 inches at the shoulder
- WEIGHT: 176–220 lbs
- HABITATS: Evergreen forests with little or no dry seaso
The saola was discovered in north-central Vietnam in May 1992 during a joint survey conducted by the Ministry of Forestry of Vietnam and the World Wildlife Fund. When the team discovered a skull in a hunter’s cabin with unusually large, straight horns, they recognized it was something special. The discovery was one of the most dramatic zoological discoveries of the twentieth century, as it was the first huge mammal discovered in more than 50 years.
Two parallel horns with pointed points, which can reach 20 inches in length and are seen on both males and females, distinguish Saola (pronounced sow-la). They are a cousin of cattle with antelope-like horns, and their name means “spindle horns” in Vietnamese. Saola have eye-catching white markings on their faces and big maxillary glands on their muzzles, which they may use to indicate territory or attract mates. They can only be found in Vietnam and Laos’ Annamite Mountains.
Why They Matter
The exact number of people who remain is uncertain. Because of its rarity, uniqueness, and vulnerability, it is one of the region’s top conservation priorities. The present population is estimated to be a few hundred at most, and probably as few as a few dozen at the most.
The saola is a significant emblem for biodiversity in Laos and Vietnam, with its exceptionally tall horns and white markings on the face.
Saola are being forced into smaller spaces as forests are cut down to make way for agriculture, crops, and infrastructure. The increased pressure from the region’s quick and large-scale infrastructure is fragmenting saola habitat. Conservationists are concerned that this may provide hunters easy access to the saola’s once-untouched habitat, potentially reducing genetic variety.
Snares set in the forest for wild boar, sambar, or muntjac deer frequently catch Saola. Snares were set up by local villagers for subsistence and crop protection. The demand for traditional medicine in China, as well as restaurant and food markets in Vietnam and Laos, has led to a tremendous surge in lowland people hunting to supply the illicit wildlife trade.