Say Hello To The Asian Unicorn

The saola. Only discovered by chance as recently as 1992 during a survey carried out by the Ministry of Forestry of Vietnam in conjunction of WWF, when a skull with unusual straight horns was found in a hunter’s home, unlike anything scientists had seen before; the saola became the most significant zoological discovery of the 20th century.

With 2 parallel horns that are 20 inches long on both males and females of the species, the saola looks like an antelope, but it is actually more closely related to cattle. Found only in the Annamite mountains of Vietnam and Laos, it is thought that only a maximum population of a few hundred remain, and a few dozen at the minimum. Without adequate data to confirm its population size, it has been classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

After the initial discovery of its skull, it took a further four years for scientist to see a live saola in the flesh after one had been captured by villagers. It was then another three years later in 1998 before the first image of a wild saola was captured on a WWF camera trap. Since this first wild sighting, camera traps have only managed to capture six more pictures of saola (most recently by a WWF camera trap in 2013), so most of what is known about this mysterious animal has come from scientific observations of a captive animal that William Robichaud (coordinator of the IUCN Saola Working Group)spent two weeks observing in 1998. His description of the saola emphasised its beautiful markings and perfectly parallel horns that seemed to merge into one when it was viewed in profile; hence the nickname “Asia’s unicorn”. Unfortunately this saola, as well as all other saola that have been captured, died a couple of weeks after its capture. Still nothing is known about how to keep them in captivity successfully and therefore there are no examples of captive saola anywhere in the world. This is a worry as at the moment there is not a captive population that could act as an insurance population if the wild population ceases to exist, a real concern for conservationists.

There is a real danger that the saola may remain a mystery to science forever because it faces a plethora of threats caused primarily by humanity, the most pressing being hunting. There has been an increase in hunting due to an influx of poachers seeking a profit from the high demand for rare species parts in affluent Asian countries, such as China. These hunters lay snares in the forests, which are often actually intended for wild boar, sambar or muntjac deer. Unfortunately for the saola, it is often an unintended victim of these snares.

Habitat loss is also a major contributor to the saola’s current situation. The forest habitat is disappearing to make way for agriculture and infrastructure, fragmenting saola habitat and pushing the saola into smaller spaces. The Ho Chi Minh trail is now a major highway that cuts through 10 national parks and furthermore, dense vegetative forest and river banks are being flooded and bulldozed for use as dams and for commercial agricultural use.

Fortunately steps have already been taken to ensure the survival of such a mysterious animal. WWF retrained forest hunters as forest guards as part of the Carbon and Diversity Project, to show villagers that they can live sustainably without resorting to hunting. These guards have used their knowledge of hunters to remove over 75000 snares and destroy 1000 illegal poaching camps yearly. Unfortunately, only a handful of arrests and prosecutions of poachers have been successful so far. There is therefore a need for more forest guards, with better equipment and greater authority, in order for them to compete with the weaponry of the poachers and achieve a greater arrest rate. There also needs to be judicial reform, to ensure that wildlife trafficking is taken seriously, with harsher penalties for anyone who is caught illegally hunting in protected areas.

The culture of hunting also needs to be addressed. This could be achieved through more cooperation with the villagers who live near saola habitats, educating them on the effects their hunting has on forest biodiversity and offering alternative ways of making a living that ensures a peaceful co-existence with forest wildlife.

As a last resort, assuming more is discovered about how to keep the saola in captivity in the future, a captive breeding program could be introduced as an “insurance” population, just in case the worst case occurred and the saola became extinct in the wild.

It would be such a shame to lose a species that highlights the importance of biodiversity, especially less than 25 years since its discovery, but if population numbers are as low as feared, there is a real possibility of the secrets of the “Asian Unicorn” being locked away forever, and that would be a real shame.

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I am a Criminology graduate specialising in wildlife crime, with an avid interest in wildlife conservation.

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