'Asian Unicorn' spotted in remote Vietnam

The sighting of the saola, often called the 'Asian Unicorn' because humans so seldom see these horned animals, suggests that efforts to rescue Vietnam’s endangered animals are making progress, the WWF said.

The saola, one of the rarest mammals on the planet, has been caught on camera in Vietnam for the first time in 15 years, spurring hope that it might be possible to save the animal from extinction, the WWF said.

In a jubilant moment for conservationists, the so-called “Asian Unicorn” was seen on a camera in one of Vietnam’s remote provinces, the WWF said on Wednesday. The sighting of the saola, a doppelgänger for an antelope, suggests that efforts to rescue Vietnam’s endangered animals are making progress, the agency said.

The saola (pronounced sow-la) is a slim bovine that lives just in the Annamite Mountains ribbing Vietnam and Laos. It has two sharp, parallel horns that can grow up to 20 inches in length; in Vietnamese, saola means “spindle horns.” Humans so seldom see these horned animals that saola are often called “Asian unicorns.”

The saola was not found until 1992, when a joint team from Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and WWF surveyed Vu Quang, the forested, species-rich region near the Vietnam-Laos border. Even then, the team found not the animal itself, but just a skull, displayed in a hunter’s home. It was less of a unicorn, and more a ghost of a unicorn. It was the first large mammal new to science in over 50 years, the WWF said.

The saola was seen in September on a camera set up in the Central Annamite mountains in Vietnam, the WWF said. The rare species was last seen on camera in 1998, in Bolikhamxay province, Laos. Villagers in the same province captured one in 2010, but it died before researchers could reach it. It has not been seen in Vietnam since 1999, the WWF said.

Since sightings are so infrequent, there is little data on saola population numbers. The WWF has estimated the number to be in the hundreds.

“When our team first looked at the photos we couldn’t believe our eyes,” said Van Ngoc Thinh, WWF-Vietnam’s Country Director, in a WWF statement. “Saola are the holy grail for South-east Asian conservationists so there was a lot of excitement.”

“This is a breath-taking discovery and renews hope for the recovery of the species,” he said.

Vietnam, swaddled in jungles and for years racked by war, now teems with discoveries of species new to science. In just the Vu Quang region alone, researchers have identified three new species of deer, a new kind of pheasant, an unusual cow alleged to eat snakes, and multiple new varieties of fish.

But as much as these recent years have been defined by discoveries in Vietnam, these have also been years of extinctions. Vietnam’s last known Javan rhino, one of five rhino species, was found slaughtered in the forest in 2010, the victim of horn-hunting poachers. And a 2012 list from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) said that five out of 100 of the world’s most endangered species lived in Vietnam, Thanh Nien Daily reported. Those included the saola, as well as a giant soft-shell turtle, a langur, a pheasant, and a pangasius fish.

Still, the WWF said the saola sighting indicates that Vietnam’s efforts to save its rare species are working. Since 2011, forest guard patrols have stripped 30,000 snares from the area where the saola was seen and have dismantled 600 illegal hunting camps, the WWF said. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'Asian Unicorn' spotted in remote Vietnam
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today