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Conservation’s Holy Grail: “Asian Unicorn” Sighted in Vietnam

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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saolaOne of the rarest creatures in Asia has been spotted in the wild for the first time in nearly 15 years. A camera trap in Vietnam has captured three fleeting images of a single saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) walking next to a stream in the rainforests of the Annamite Mountains. The species, considered one of conservation’s “holy grails,” was only discovered 21 years ago and was last observed in the wild in Laos back in 1999. Only one other saola has been spotted since that time; the animal was captured by villagers in Laos in 2010 but died before conservationists could study it.

The camera trap, which collected the images this past September, was set up by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Vietnam’s Forest Protection Department. It’s admittedly hard to make out the saola in the black-and-white image above, but WWF turned the three camera-trap photos into an animated gif which shows the animal just before it slips out of frame:

saola

WWF has been working with the Vietnamese government for the past few years to set up a saola conservation zone and remove illegal hunting snares from the area. Forest guards recruited from local communities and trained by the two organizations have removed 30,000 snares since 2011. Hunters in the area try to capture deer and civet for the illegal wildlife trade; WWF considers the snares to be the biggest threat to saola survival.

In a press release Barney Long, director of WWF’s Species Conservation Program, called the photos “a monumental find” and said they are “a huge reward for decades of tireless work by the provincial government who established the saola reserve, community snare-removal teams and WWF biologists. Now it’s time to double our efforts to recover this iconic species.”

Despite its antelope-like appearance, the saola is actually more closely related to cattle. Nicknamed the “Asian unicorn,” the animals bear not one but two strikingly long and sharp horns arcing back from their foreheads. Biologists have speculated that the horns inspired the legends behind China’s version of the unicorn, the qilin.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photos © WWF-Vietnam. Used with permission

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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