Saola ‘Unicorn’: The Hunt to Save One of the World’s Most Elusive Animals From Extinction is On

by Jon D. B.
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Known as the unicorn of Asia or spindlehorn, no biologist has ever seen a saola in the wild. And the race is on to find them before extinction strikes.

“We stand at a moment of conservation history,” offers William Robichaud, president of the Saola Foundation. “We know how to find and save this magnificent animal, which has been on planet Earth for perhaps 8 million years. [Now] we just need the world to come together and support the effort.”

It won’t cost much, Robichaud continues, “and the reward, for saola, for the Annamite mountains, and for ourselves, will be huge.”

William Robichaud and Simon Hedges would co-found the Saola Working Group (SWG) in 2006. Their goal? Find the last surviving saolas in the wild and begin a captive breeding program before they’re gone forever. And if their January 2022 remarks for The Guardian are to go by, it is now or never.

Asia’s Unicorn: What is a Saola?

Holding a decades-old distinction as the “Asian unicorn,” saolas are remarkably elusive. No specimen has ever been seen in the wild by human eyes within recorded history. The images we have from their natural habitat come from the handful of times the species has been captured via motion-censor trail cams.

These hooved mammals weigh around 200-pounds on average. Or so we believe. Unlike unicorns of myth, the saola sports two long, straight horns. Their faces hold striking white spots and odd, bulbous scent glands. Yet they managed to elude science for millennia.

The saola was only first discovered, documented, and classified in 1992. Even then, a live specimen was not found. Instead, a wildlife survey of north-central Vietnam’s Vũ Quang nature reserve uncovered two skulls with incredible horns belonging to a then-unidentified species. This led to its original naming of the Vu Quang Ox.

More than a dozen partial specimens would follow, and in 1993 the unknown animal was found to be a completely new genus of the bovid family altogether. More familiar bovids include antelopes, goats, sheep, and of course, cattle.

Still, there’s nothing else on Earth quite like Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, the saola.

The Brink of Extinction

All of the above would make for one of the most spectacular scientific discoveries of the 20th century. But commercial wildlife poaching is an immense problem in Vietnam, and conservationists believe it continues to claim the majority of existing saolas.

“Thousands of people use snares, so there are millions of them in the forest, which means populations of large mammals and some birds have no way to escape and are collapsing throughout the Annamites,” Minh Nguyen, a PhD student at Colorado State University, tells The Guardian.

The remaining saola population is now no more than 100 as a result. The species was last seen alive in a trail camera image from 2013 in Vietnam’s Saola Nature Reserve. Local villagers continue to report the species’ presence, however, so conservationists like SWG’s Robichaud and Hedges hold out hope.

Hope isn’t enough, however. It will take the hard word and dense funding SWG is chasing in order to save the “Asian unicorn” from extinction. SWG is doing all they can to raise awareness. Now, fellow conservationists (like this Outsider) are doing what we can to help, too.

To learn more about how you can help save the saola from extinction, visit SavetheSaola.org.

If successful, the end goal is to breed saolas in captivity. Once a healthy population exists, these majestic bovids will see release out into the wild to (hopefully) flourish for eons to come.

Outsider.com