Image: “Saola” by Bill Robichaud
|IUCN status||Critically endangered|
|Unique evolutionary history||13 million years ago|
Why is the saola so special?
This large, forest-dwelling bovine, also known as the Asian unicorn, was entirely unknown to western science until 1992, when three sets of horns were found in the homes of Vietnamese hunters.
This unique and shy creature is the only species in its genus, having diverged from its ancestors more than 13 million years ago. The elusive two-horned unicorn is cited to be one the rarest large animals on Earth, and has yet to been seen in the wild by a biologist! Information about saola has been gathered through a handful of camera-trap photographs, animal remains and information from villagers. Attempts to maintain the animals in captivity have failed, and due to the timid nature of this animal, along with the rugged and remote ecosystem in which it inhabits, population estimates are largely uncertain.
What are the threats facing the saola?
Saola’s greatest threat is hunting, mostly from the commercial bushmeat trade. Whilst the species is unlikely to be specifically targeted due to its low population numbers, it is often caught by indiscriminate snares.
This issue is rampant; the Saola Working Group have cited that forest rangers have removed over 130,000 snares from a single reserve in central Vietnam within just a few years. With the distribution of saola now in small isolated subpopulations, it is likely the species will be up against associated small population issues including genetic inbreeding and difficulties in males and females locating each other for mating.
What is being done to help save the saola from extinction?
Bach Ma National Park was selected as the site for a captive-breeding centre that would focus predominately on the saola, but construction has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Biologists are working to locate saola in the wild and increase capacity in local communities for saola detection.
What can I do to help?
The conservation efforts for the striking saola need to be greatly increased to save this shy forest-dweller from extinction. Alongside the efforts and achievements so far from the Saola Working Group, further conservation actions need to:
- Urgently prioritise effective patrolling against snaring and other hunting in both Laos and Vietnam.
- Establish a captive, insurance population of saola for breeding efforts
- Further efforts are needed to detect isolated saola populations and to study the saola’s life history and ecology to allow saola to thrive in captivity.
If you love weird animals of all shapes and sizes and you want to see how you can help with WAWA’s conservation support, then please see how you can get involved here.
References and further infomation
Saola Working Group Report (2016). 2016 Annual Report. https://www.savethesaola.org/wp- content/uploads/2017/03/SWG-2016-AR-REVISED-finalsm.pdf Accessed: 24/4/2022
Saola Working Group Report (2020). Achievements and Highlights: January – June 2020. https://www.savethesaola.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Saola-Working-Group-Report-for-January-to-June-2020.pdf Accessed: 24/4/2022
Tilker, A., Long, B., Gray, T. N. E., Robichaud, W., Van Ngoc, T., Vu Linh, N., Holland, J., Shurter, S., Comizzoli, P., Thomas, P., Ratajszczak, R. & Burton, J. (2017). Saving the saola from extinction. Science, 357(6357), 1248.
Van Dung, V., Giao, P., Chinh, N., Tuoc, D., Arctander, P. & MacKinnon, J. (1993). A new species of living bovid from Vietnam. Nature 363, 443–445.