Unicorns have been discovered in Vietnam. Well, Asian unicorns, as the long-horned ox, the saolas, are nicknamed. They are one of the rarest and most threatened animals in the world. Estimates of how many are left live in the forests of Vietnam range from just a few dozen to a few hundred.
In central Vietnam this past September, one of the Saolas was captured in a photograph in a forest. Before that, the last Saola anyone reported having seen alive was 15 years ago. Little is known about this rare and elusive animal, though it eats a diet of plants.
It wasn’t until Tuesday that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced that the Saola had been detected and photographed on September 7 by a camera trap. The photographs gave the WWF director in Vietnam, Dr. Van Ngoc Thinh, reason to believe that their conservation efforts might be helping, and he said he had renewed “hope for the recovery of the species.”
To protect and preserve Saolas, the WWF has set up along the Laotian border a 60-square-mile conservation zone in the Quang Nam province.
Saolas were unknown to science until their discovery in 1992. That was when WWF researchers saw three unusual-looking skulls on the walls of the home of hunters on the border between Laos and Vietnam in the region of the Annamite (Truong Son) Mountains. Other than a recently discovered species of dolphin off the coast of Australia, it was, according to the vietnamese WWF director, “the first large mammal that’s new to science in more than 50 years.”
In 2010, a Saola was rescued by a forest ranger from hunters in Laos, but after just two months, it died in captivity.
Poachers have been a major threat to the Saolas. They sometimes have gotten caught in snare wires that poachers set up, though, for obvious reasons, poachers are reluctant to divulge just how many Saolas have been caught in these traps.
Since 2011, guard patrols in the forests of Vietnam have found and removed over 30,000 of these snares. They have also destroyed over 600 illegal hunters’ camps. While many more such snares and camps likely still are being used for poachers, the conservation efforts seem to be paying off.
Do Saolas actually have only one horn, like unicorns out of fables and myths?
Though the nickname of Saolas are “Asian unicorns” they have two horns, not one. Viewed from the side, however, sometimes their two horns blend together, and can look like one.
Saolas are relatively small mammals. They only stand about four feet tall and are dark brown in color, and they weigh in at approximately 200 pounds.
Though it might not be as cool of a claim to fame as having only one horn, like the unicorns we’ve all read and heard about and seen in fantasy movies/cartoons, Saolas have one claim to fame that’s unique to them — they have the record for having the largest scent glands of any known mammal. If one feels like it’s in danger, it will spray its odor from these glands at whatever animal might be thinking of snacking on it.
One factor that couldn’t have helped the overall numbers of the Saolas is that Vietnam has been involved in warfare that lasted for years.They had the misfortune to live right where the Ho Chi Minh trail went through. The trail was a supply route for North Vietnamese troops, and, as a result, was carpeted with bombs.
Saolas are unique, but these Asian unicorns aren’t unique for having only one horn, but rather for their large scent glands. They are one of the world’s rarest animals, but with the concerted efforts of the WWF and others, Saolas appear to be making a comeback from the very brink of extinction. These bovines, which are related to cows, goats, and antelopes, have somehow managed to survive through years of bloody warfare and thousands of snares of poachers. With further aid from the WWF, Saolas might become one of the most famous cases where conservation efforts have paid off in a big way.
Written by: Douglas Cobb