It seems somehow fitting that the Saola– an animal often referred to as the “Asian unicorn”– lives in a remote range of misty mountains in Southeast Asia.
There in the Annamite Range bordering Vietnam and Laos, one of the world’s rarest large mammals dwells quietly in the damp forest, feeding on ferns, shrubs, and trees.
It is almost never seen by human eyes. It wasn’t photographed in the wild until 1999, and even that was by a camera trap set by WWF and the Vietnamese government’s Forest Protection Department.
So you can understand why the Saola (scientific name Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) has taken on mythical status in the region around its home territory. The “Asian unicorn” is mild-mannered, mysterious, and, unfortunately, critically endangered by mankind.
What follows are 40 fascinating facts about the Saola, including details on their habitat, diet, unique horns, why they’re one of the most endangered species in Asia, and what’s being done to protect them.
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- The Saola Name
- Discovery of the “Asian Unicorn”
- Basic Saola Facts
- Saola Habitat
- Saola Behavior
- Why is the Saola Endangered?
- Saola Conservation Efforts
- FAQ About the Saola
- Why Saving the Saola Is Important?
The Saola Name
1) In both the Vietnamese Tai language and the Lao language, Saola means “spinning wheel posts.” This refers to the paired support posts for the textile spinning wheels that are used in local villages. It is said that the Saola’s horns resemble these spinning wheel posts. The name can also be translated as “spindle-horned.”
2) The most common nickname for the Saola, as previously discussed, is the Asian unicorn. But its two other common names are the Vu Quang bovid and Vu Quang ox. This is because Vu Quang Nature Reserve (now Vu Quang National Park) was where the animal was first discovered.
3) The scientific name for the Saola is Pseudoryx nghetinhenesis. The “Pseudoryx” portion of this classification denotes the animals’ physical similarity to the oryxes of arid Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. “Nghetinhensis” is an amalgamation of the two Vietnamese provinces in which it was first discovered by scientists.
4) In reality, the Saola is a closer relative of cows than antelopes (of which oryxes are a large species). All of these animals are members of the Bovidae family, a large collection of mammals that includes cattle, goats, sheep, oxen, buffaloes, bison, wildebeests, antelopes, and yaks. But this family does not include horses, with which unicorns are most often compared!
5) The Saola is the sole member of the genus Pseudoryx. There has been some scientific debate as to where to categorize it within the subfamilies of Bovidae. Anatomically, it’s more cow-like, or bovinae. But it could be easily confused with the members of the Aegodonotia group, such as antelopes and oryxes. So it is being given a special “tribe” name, Pseudoorigini.
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Discovery of “The Asian Unicorn”
6) It wasn’t until May of 1992 that the Saola became known to the Western world (and possibly to those outside of its natural habitat).
7) The species was “discovered” in Vietnam by representatives from the Ministry of Forestry and World Wildlife Fund, when they saw an unusually long skull with straight horns in a hunter’s home. The Saola became the first newly discovered large mammal in over 50 years, and is considered amongst the most notable zoological revelations of the 20th century.
8) After the discovery of the skull, a live specimen was not seen by a scientist until 1998, when a captive Saola was examined by William G. “Bill” Robichaud. Even now, more than 20 years later, most of our Saola facts are based on Robichaud’s observations. Unfortunately, the animal died in captivity 15 days later.
9) Though the Saola is commonly caught in snares used for hunting, the animal wasn’t seen in person by scientists again until 2010. As in Robichaud’s case, the second Saola was only observed briefly before dying in captivity. One new fact learned from that animal was that it seemed unusually calm around humans, but particularly skittish around dogs.
10) Arguablty the most relevant Saola information gleaned from the 1998 and 2010 captures was that the species clearly doesn’t do well in captivity. So the last two known captive Saola were released back into the wild, and keeping them in captivity was deemed illegal. Of course, this has only added to the mystique of the Asian unicorn, as an animal who cannot be tamed.
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Basic Saola Facts
11) Though they’re known as Asian unicorns, the Saola actually has two parallel horns with sharp ends. Saola horns can grow up to 20 inches long, and though they appear to be straight they actually curve back gently. Horns are present on both males and females. They’re used in defense against predators such as leopards, tigers, and wild dogs, and may also be used in territorial battles.
12) The Saola has a distinctive face with numerous white marking, including a white stripe above each eye that resembles eyebrows. The fur on the rest of their body ranges from dark brown and reddish to black, and it is smooth and short. The tail of the saola is black and fluffy, and its legs are also black. There are other white patches on the animal’s stomach and chest.
13) Saolas stand just under three feet at the shoulder, with a back that goes up a few inches higher than that. Measured up to their heads, these Vietnamese animals can flirt with five feet in height! They weigh somewhere between 175 and 220 pounds, making them roughly the same size as a large white-tailed deer.
14) The Saola has a very long tongue, which can extend out up to 16 inches. Strangely, they rarely seem to use it in order to pull food into their mouths, instead nibbling at the base of leaves until they fall of the branch. Their extra-long tongues are more often utilized for grooming themselves and swatting flies away from their eyes.
15) The Saola also has large maxillary glands– possibly the largest of any existing mammal– which scientists believe are used to mark territory. Located on their snouts, these glands secrete a thick, gray-green paste that smells pungent (similar to that of a musk ox). The glands are covered by flaps of skin that are sometimes thought to resemble gills, which retract when a Saola is marking.
16) The only call that a Saola has been observed to make is a quiet, monotone bleat that lasts for about one second.
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17) Saola males are highly territorial, and cover a much wider range than females do. It is believed that each male mates with several females that occupy a smaller space within the male’s territory.
18) There are no Saola remaining in captivity today. There were reportedly 13 in captivity in 1998 (seven in Laos and six in Vietnam), but they all died. There were at least 20 in captivity in 2008, and all but two of those died. The survivors were released back into the wild.
19) Due to the remote nature of the Annamite mountains, Saola are rarely seen in their natural habitat. Because the terrain there is really difficult to navigate, most sightings are attributed to local villagers rather than scientists.
20) The Saola typically lives in wet broadleaf, evergreen (or mixed evergreen-deciduous) forests with little to no dry season. The Saola population inhabits as many as 15 different pockets of forest in this area, primarily between 1000 and 3500 feet in altitude.
21) They prefer the edge zones of the forest, and are believed to move from the mountain to the lowlands during winter (when rainfall decreases). They are always found near fresh, running water.
22) In total, the entire Saola population is thought to live in a range that covers about 10,000 acres. By comparison, a single Siberian tiger can have a territory more than twice this size.
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23) One of the world’s most critically endangered species, the Saola is a solitary creature. Pairs are sometimes seen, but this is generally a mother and child rather than two mating adults. On rare occasions, they have been spotted moving in small herds of three to seven individuals.
24) Like other bovines, the Saola diet is completely vegetarian. These herbivores feed on ferns, fig leaves, and other leafy plants found along the banks of rivers. In fact, they seem to be rather indiscriminate about the plants they eat. But they do have favorites, including Schismatoglottis, a non-aromatic tropical flowering plant.
25) Based on observations from captivity and accounts from villages, scientists think the Saola are diurnal, or active during the day. They’re most active in the early morning and evening, resting in the heat of midday. At night, they hide from predators and rarely feed after sunset.
26) Though the Saola lifespan is unknown, it’s believed to be somewhere in the 8- to 11-year range. Incredibly, this informaton is largely based on observations of a single Saola. Antelope live to be roughly this age, but cattle and oxen live about twice as long.
27) The animal’s gestation period is thought to be around eight months, with baby Saola born just into the regional rainy season. Like other bovines, the Saola normally gives birth to a single calf.
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Why is the Saola Endangered?
28) The Saola population remains a mystery because their remote location makes studying them so difficult. Population estimates typically bottom out in the low double digits, and never exceed a few hundred. Sadly, the number of these critically endangered animals seems to be decreasing.
29) According to the Saola Working Group, the #1 cause of their decreasing population is hunting. Saola are often caught in snares meant for boar, sambar, or muntjac deer. Local villagers use traps to capture food and protect their crops, and this unfortunately means the occasional Saola gets snagged. Due to its rarity, village hunters also receive esteem for bringing one home.
30) Poaching animals for traditional Chinese medicine has also been an issue in the area. The facial glands of the Saola hae historically been used to address a wide array of ailments.
31) Saola are also being challenged by habitat loss, much of it due to unsustainable agriculture. Saola habitat is continually destroyed in order to create new palm oil plantations. Rapid large-scale infrastructure, principally for transportation, is also fragmenting the region’s forests. Sadly, the Saola have proven not to be well-suited for co-habiting with humans.
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Saola Conservation Efforts
32) The Saola is arguably the most endangered species in Asia, and is listed by the IUCN among the most critically endangered species in the world. They’re also included on the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE (Evolutionary Distinct & Globally Endangered) list, as well as its list of the 100 most at-risk animals.
33) WWF is working to strengthen existing protected areas and establish new protected areas within the Saola’s range, including Vu Quang National Park. WWF is also working to strengthen Saola populations at reserves in the Thua-Thein Hue and Quang Nam provinces of Vietnam.
34) The Saola Working Group was formed in 2006 by the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Wild Cattle Specialist Group, and is supported by Global Wildlife Conservation. The Saola Working Group has been the catalyst for the One Plan approach to save these animals. The Saola Foundation is a related fundraising group that is geared toward financing the SWG.
35) Although there has never been a Saola in a zoo, a 2018 Saola Working Group fundraiser attracted 22 zoos and affiliated organizations in North America and Europe. Collectively, they contributed or pledged more than $350,000 towards the construction of a conservation-focused breeding center designed to save the Asian unicorn.
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How many Saola are left in the world?
36) The difficult terrain of their remote location makes scientific study difficult, but the best guess is that there are anywhere from 100 to 700 Saolo left in the wild. The population in Laos is believed to be larger than that in Vietnam, but both Saola populations may be below 100 at this point.
What is the lifespan of a Saola?
37) Scientists think that Saola may live somewhere between 8 and 11 years in the wild. But since all scientific study has been limited to observation of 13 captive animals, and the species does not do well in captivity, this is really just a guess based on the lifespan of bovines of similar size.
How big is a Saola?
38) Measuring 59 to 77 inches long, nearly four feet tall, and weighing up to 220 pounds, the Saola is the largest mammal discovered in the latter half of the 20th century. Though more closely related to cows and oxen, it looks like an antelope, and is about the same size as a white-tailed deer.
Why is the Saola hunted?
39) Though Saola are hunted by tigers and other animal predators for food, it is most endangered by humans. Not local subsistence hunters, but commercial poachers who sell them to the illegal wildlife trade, whether for bushmeat or use in traditional Asian medicine.
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Why is Saving the Saola Important?
40) Despite living so remotely, in such a small space, with a very small population, the Saola is an integral part of its ecosystem. Even if science has yet to identify the importance part it plays there, the fact is that any 200+ pound mammal matters.
With studies suggesting we’re headed towards the planet’s sixth mass extinction event, the implications of not doing all we can to save critically endangered species like the Saola are not difficult to imagine. Biologically speaking, whatever niche endangered animals fill becomes infinitely more identifiable after they’re gone… and by that point it’s too late.
Consider the degradation of America’s once-fertile Great Plains when buffalo were killed off in order to develop the land into cattle farms and agricultural fields. Once the buffalo were gone, the landscape fell prey to desert-like desolation. Most of those slaughtered buffalo weren’t even used for food, which they would’ve provided more of than the cattle that subsequently overgrazed the land.
When do we stop making the same mistake? When do we begin to value animals like the Saola, recognizing that their place on the planet os just as significant as ours?
Time is running out to save the Asian unicorn, a critically endangered animal that’s so wild, it can’t be contained in zoos. Isn’t that just remarkable?! –Jonathon Engels, lead photo by Bill Ribochaud courtesy Flickr via CC 2.0