The Asian Unicorn

Image Source: Bill Robichaud via Global Wildlife Conservation

A while back, The Nature Nook looked at the so-called ‘African unicorn’, the okapi. Half-believed but never seen, surrounded by legend and mystique, this highly secretive relative of the giraffe was only officially described by science at the start of the 20th century, long after most other large animals had been discovered and catalogued. A hundred and twenty years later, the okapi remains rare and elusive, but it can at least be seen in several zoos around the world and we now know much more about it.

But today we’ll be looking at the Asian unicorn – a creature that is so elusive, so mysterious, that it wasn’t discovered until the late 20th century. Even today, it has never been seen alive in the wild by a trained biologist.

Secrets of the Saola

Few places on Earth are so remote and unexplored that a terrestrial animal the size of a small horse could live unknown to science for hundreds of years, but the upland forests of Vũ Quang, on the border between Vietnam and Laos, is obviously one of them. In May 1992, a joint biological expedition was set up by the Vietnam Ministry of Forestry and the World Wide Fund for Nature to explore this little-known biodiversity hotspot. While visiting a local village, one of the biologists noticed some long, straight horns that he didn’t recognise hanging in a hunter’s house. They were unlike those belonging to any animal then known to live in Southeast Asia.

What animal could possess such horns? It was theorised to be some sort of antelope, undescribed by science. No one apart from the local people had any idea of its existence, and even they rarely saw it.

A search of the region yielded more horns and some skins, from which a new species was officially described a year later. It turned out not to be an antelope at all, but a bovid that looks like an antelope. It was named the Vu Quang ox, or saola (sow-la), and became the largest previously unknown land mammal to be introduced to science since 1937. A live individual was first seen by scientists in 1994 when local people caught one for it to be studied, but the young female (pictured at the top of the article) died shortly afterwards. Very few photographs of the species exist, which explains why this particular post is pretty light on the image front.

But what made the discovery of the saola even more remarkable was that this wasn’t simply a new species of wild ox. Its antelope-like qualities made that abundantly clear. No, this was something entirely new. Something sufficiently different enough from all other living animals to be placed within its very own genus, Pseudoryx (because of its superficial similarity to the oryx).

This all happened nearly three decades ago now, but we still know almost next to nothing about this creature – only what we’ve been able to glean from remains, camera traps, local knowledge, and the occasional captive. We know that it weighs 80-100 kg, stands 90 cm tall at the shoulder, and lives only in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos. We also know that it seems to be mostly solitary, but small groups of them have been reported on occasion. And that’s about it. It’s very difficult to ascertain much about the saola’s behaviour because it remains the largest terrestrial mammal (whose existence we are certain of) that has never been seen alive in the wild by a biologist. Even captive animals aren’t much help because they have the unfortunate habit of dying soon after being caught.

The saola’s discovery is often regarded as the biggest zoological find of the late 20th century – but also one of the most mysterious. This photo from the Zoological Museum of Copenhagen shows the skin, horns, and other remains of the saola, which provided some of the first known evidence of the existence of the species.
Image Source: Funk Monk

Saola Under Siege

Biologists know very little about the saola, but one thing is abundantly clear: this species is in big trouble. Decades of war, habitat loss, and illegal poaching have almost certainly had a severe impact on its population. During the Vietnam War, Laos became the most bombed country per capita in human history (more bombs rained down upon it than on all of Europe during World War II), while Agent Orange – the herbicidal chemical sprayed over Vietnam by the U.S. military – decimated much of the foliage and habitat that the saola depends on. And since that time, there has been a poaching crisis in the saola’s last refuge; there are hundreds of thousands of wire traps strung across the Annamite Mountains. The saola is living in a landscape literally covered in snares.

Many poachers in this area are hunting animals for the Chinese medicinal trade and expensive bushmeat restaurants. On one hand, the saola, having never existed in China, plays no role in traditional medicine there and is rarely actively hunted; the poachers are here for other animals. On the other hand, snares are indiscriminate killers; they cannot tell the difference between the animals that the poachers are targeting and other inhabitants of the forest. Depressingly, the saola has effectively become bycatch.

So how many saolas remain? Not very many at all, that much is known. For that reason, it is considered Critically Endangered. But beyond that, we simply don’t have enough information to make a population estimate. There could be 500 of them, or there could be as few as 50. The big problem is that nobody really knows much about the saola, so nobody really knows what we need to do to conserve it. The only thing we can do is protect and try to regenerate its forest home.

As a result of rampant snaring, saola are now thought to be distributed in a handful of small, isolated subpopulations in the Annamite Mountains, above.
Image Source: Rolf Müller

As we move into the third decade of the 20th century, the saola still remains an enigma. But it may have been one of the world’s last big secrets – one of the final terrestrial animals of any great size to be described by science. Today, the blanks of the map have been filled out. Few truly unexplored wildernesses remain. Wild habitats are being plundered and exploited at an alarming rate. The saola may have evaded science for a long time, but does it have any chance of evading extinction?

To find out more about the challenging work being done to try and save this remarkable but incredibly mysterious mammal, visit Save the Soala, the website of the Saola Working Group Conservancy, which seeks to engage and incorporate local communities into protecting saolas.


  • Jason Woodcock

    With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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