New effort to try to find the Asian ‘unicorn’ Saola

No biologist has ever seen one in the wild, and they were only confirmed to exist in 1992 becoming one of a very rare group of mammals only discovered in the last few decades.

image of a Saola

Camera traps have photographed them a handful of times, and possibly even local villages have tried to keep them in captivity. Unfortunately, they have never survived -presumably because they were not given suitable food.

In 1992 2 skills and a pair of trophy horns were discovered. Over the next few years about 20 more specimens including a full skin were collected, and in 1993 DNA evidence revealed it was not only a species unknown to science, but exists in a new genus of the Bovid family (which include cattle antelope goats and sheep).

The name means spindle horns.

Although not directly hunted, poaching has exploded in its range – likely reducing its population further. While efforts to mount more patrols have been undertaken, there are thousands of people setting up snares, with millions in the forest.

Other species like the Large-antlered Muntjac have also become critically endangered.

In 2001 the Saola population was estimated to number 70 to 200 individuals. More recently, this has been reduced to ‘no more than 100’. It was last camera trapped in 2013 with villagers continuing to report its presence.

The problem with species like this is simple. If you imagine looking for a small antelope with a small population in a large forest, it is clear how rarely you would stumble upon it; if you add that it is shy and good at hiding, it makes it particularly hard to protect.

Its thought that the Saola has lived on earth for 8 million years, as it is present in the fossil record. At the moment, there is an effort underway to find and catch enough to create a captive breeding program; though we must hope that if they succeed, the scientists will be more successful than the villagers in keeping them alive.

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