The Saola Is Southeast Asia's 'Unicorn'

By: Sascha Bos  | 
A dark, deer-like animal peers between trees in a forest
The WWF calls the saola "one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century." Bruyu / Shutterstock

The saola, also known as the Asian unicorn, is one of the rarest animals in the world. Not only is it critically endangered, but the saola is famously secretive; very little is known about it. There are no saola in captivity and the last categorically documented saola sighting was in 2013.

Here's what we know about these critically endangered large mammals.

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About Saolas

The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is a large mammal in the Bovidae family known for its unusual horns. They have only been found in the Annamite Mountains on the border of Vietnam and Laos.

With its long, parallel horns, saola resemble antelope, but their closest relatives are wild cattle. This species is so unique that it belongs to its own genus.

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'Discovery' of the Saola

Due to its remote and rugged habitat of the Annamite Mountains, saolas were unknown to all except local villagers until the 1990s. Today, they are the flagship species of their region.

Scientists first learned of the Saola during a 1992 survey of Vu Quang Nature Reserve in Vietnam. According to a 1993 paper, visits to the houses of local hunters revealed unique horns that could not be attributed to any other species.

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The WWF, which partnered in the Vu Quang survey, calls the saola "one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century."

Saola Conservation Status

The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the saola as critically endangered in 2003. The organization estimates there are less than 100 saola left in the wild.

Illegal hunting is the primary threat to Saola conservation. Traps used to catch other animals in the saola's range, including civets, deer and wild boar, can also kill saolas.

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The other issue is a lack of understanding regarding of the saola's distribution and habitat preferences. The Saola Working Group uses camera traps, dung analysis and interviews with locals to learn more about saola, but without a captive breeding program, the species remains incredibly vulnerable.

“This is an opportunity to save a species from extinction. Saving saola is a resource problem, not a technical one,” said Lorraine Scotson, CEO of the Saola Foundation, in a press release.

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