Extremely Rare ‘Unicorn’ Rediscovered in Vietnam

Published:12:26 pm EDT, November 13, 2013| Updated:12:36 pm EDT, November 13, 2013|
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(William Robichaud/WWF)

(William Robichaud/WWF)

One of the rarest mammals in the world has been spotted in an epic "rediscovery" that offers new hope for conservationists.

A saola — a cousin to cattle that looks like an antelope but is known as the Asian unicorn — was captured on film in Vietnam, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Here's what you should know about this important development.


1. A 'Camera Trap' Caught the Animal

saola

Taken September 7, this camera-trap photo shows a saola strolling along a forest stream. (WWF)

In September, a World Wildlife Fund "camera trap" set in the remote Central Annamite mountains captured the elusive creature making its way along a forest stream.

According to William Robichaud, Coordinator of the Saola Working Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission:

These are the most important wild animal photographs taken in Asia, and perhaps the world, in at least the past decade.


2. A Saola Hadn't Been Photographed Since Last Century

In 1999, a camera trap in Laos captured the last known photo of a Saola.

Describing the recent discovery, WWF-Vietnam Country Director Dr. Van Ngoc Thinh described the animal as the "holy grail" for conservationists in South Asia:

“When our team first looked at the photos we couldn’t believe our eyes. ... This is a breathtaking discovery and renews hope for the recovery of the species.”


3. The Species Was First Discovered Just 20 Years Ago

In 1992, a team of scientists in Vietnam near the Laos border discovered a skull in a hunter's home and noted its unusual horns. It turned out to be the first new large mammal discovery in more than 50 years.


4. It's Not Really a Unicorn

unicorn copy

Known as an Asian unicorn because it is so rarely seen that it's almost a mythical creature, the saola is a cousin to cattle. It actually has two horns, not one, which grow to as long as 50 centimeters.


5. While the Photos Offer Hope, the Saola Still Faces Extinction

A forest guard displays an illegal snare removed from saola habitat. (William Robichaud/WWF)

A forest guard displays an illegal snare removed from saola habitat. (William Robichaud/WWF)

The species' numbers are tiny, estimated to be in the tens or hundreds. Meanwhile, thousands of illegal snares litter the forests where saolas live. But conservationists are fighting to keep hunters from ridding the planet of Asian unicorns. Dr. Van Ngoc describes the enforcement program:

Saola are caught in wire snares set by hunters to catch other animals, such as deer and civets, which are largely destined for the lucrative illegal wildlife trade. Since 2011, forest guard patrols in the CarBi area have removed more than 30,000 snares from this critical saola habitat and destroyed more than 600 illegal hunters’ camps. Confirmation of the presence of the saola in this area is a testament to the dedicated and tireless efforts of these forest guards.

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