It probably comes as no surprise to learn that the Saola– an animal sometimes referred to as the “Asian unicorn”– lives in a remote range of mountains in Southeast Asia. a place where skies are typically heavy with rain, but indeed, that is where the Asian unicorn resides.
Locally recognized as saola, this animal does, in fact, have a long horn (or two) protruding from its head. And, indeed, it is seen so rarely, to the extent of being almost more legend than real, that the saola holds nearly mythical status on the planet. At least for those who know it exists at all.
It’s no secret that wild animals have not fared well in modern time, and that’s particularly true for large land mammals, which generally need a bit more space to roam and, it would seem, hide. While the dinosaurs may have been wiped out by a rogue asteroid or an ice age, it’s also no secret why today’s creatures are increasingly struggling to exist: humans.
The list of critically endangered animals, those species most at risk of extinction, includes some truly magnificent beasts, many of which we instantly recognize. There are large cats such as the leopards and tigers. There are intelligent primates like orangutans and gorillas. There are mammoth mammals in the form of rhinos and elephants. There are even swimming specimens: the hawksbill turtle, Yangtze finless porpoise, and vaquita, another type of porpoise and the rarest of marine animals.
While these are some of the showstoppers of the list, the ones that garner the most attention, there are many other species that get less press photos. There are birds and frogs and snakes and wolves and many, many other animals. Amongst these lesser known species is the saola, sometimes referred to as the “Asian unicorn”.
The saola is one of the most critically endangered species in the world. Though much of its life is still shrouded in mystery, what we know is fascinating. It is a particularly unusual species throughout the world, unique to its own tribe and not quite fitting with any other category of animal. It lives in only a tiny, remote part of Asia, and yet somehow has still been threatened by humanity. Though what we know of the saola is incredibly limited, we know for sure it is an animal worth saving.
- The Saola Name
- Discovery of “The Asian Unicorn”
- Basic Saola Facts
- Saola Habitat
- Saola Lifestyle
- Why is the Saola Endangered?
- Saola Conservation
- Why Is It Called Asian Unicorn?
- Why is the Saola Endangered?
- Why Saving the Saola Is Important?
The Saola Name
1) The name “saola” in both the Vietnamese Tai language and the Lao language, means “spinning wheel posts”. This refers to the paired support posts of textile spinning wheels used in local villages, and saola, the animal, was named this due to its horns, which resemble the spinning wheel posts. In the same vein, it is also known as spindle horn.
2) Two other common names for the saola, particularly outside of the Vietnamese and Laotian regions where it lives, are— as mentioned before— the Asian unicorn and Vu Quang ox. Vu Quang Nature Reserve is where the animal was first discovered by the Western world.
3) The scientific name for the saola is Pseudoryx nghetinhenesis. The “Pseudoryx” portion of this classification denotes the animals’ outward 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, Psuedoryx nghetinhensis is a closer relative to cows and buffaloes than antelopes, which oryxes are. Nevertheless, all of these animals are members of the Bovidae, a large collection of mammals that includes cattle, goats, sheep, oxen, buffaloes, bison, wildebeests, antelopes, and yaks. (Not horses, with which unicorns are most often compared.)
5) However, the saola is the sole member of the genus Pseudoryx. There has also been some debate as to where to categorize it in species of the subfamilies of Bovidae. Anatomically, it seems more cow-like, or bovinae, but outwardly, it would be most readily confused with the members of the Aegodonotia group, such as antelopes and oryxes. So, it is being given a special “tribe” name: Pseudoorigini.
Discovery of “The Asian Unicorn”
6) It wasn’t until May of 1992 that the saola became known to the Western world, possibly to those outside of its natural habitat.
7) The species was “discovered” in Vietnam by the Ministry of Forestry in Vietnam and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), when representatives saw an unusually long skull with straight horns in a hunter’s home. The skull was unlike anything they’d studied. It was the first newly discovered large mammal in over 50 years and amongst the most notable zoological revelations of the 20th century.
8) Perhaps as surprisingly as the discovery of the skull, a live specimen was not seen (by a scientist) until 1998, when a captive saola was examines by William G. “Bill” Robichaud. Over 20 years later, much of our current knowledge of the saola is still based on Robichaud’s observations at that time. Unfortunately, the animal died in captivity 15 days later.
9) Though many other captures are believed to have occurred since (they are commonly caught in the snares of hunters), the saola wasn’t again observed live by scientists until in 2010, but it was only briefly observed before dying in captivity. What observers have noticed, however, is that saola seem unusually calm around humans but particularly skittish around dogs.
10) For many, the most relevant information from the 1998 and 2010 captures were that saola don’t survive in captivity. 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 animal, one that cannot be tamed.
Basic Saola Facts
11) As mentioned earlier, soala get their names from their horns. And, despite also being called Asian unicorns, they actually have two parallel horns with sharp ends. These can grow to be 20 inches long, and they appear straight but, in fact, curve back gently. The horns are present on both males and females, and they are used in defense against unicorn predators. (Who would have ever guessed there was such a thing!)
12) Saola have distinctive faces with white markings and, particularly, with a white stripe above each eye, resembling eyebrows. The fur on the rest of their body is dark brown to red to black, and it is smooth and short. The tail of the saola is fluffy and black, and its legs are also black. Other white patches appear on its underside and chest.
13) As mentioned, these were the largest mammals discovered by modern science in over 50 years (in 1992). They stand just under three feet at the shoulder with a back that goes up a few inches higher than that. Measured up to its head, a saola can begin to flirt with five feet tall. They weigh somewhere between 176-220 pounds, making them roughly the size of an large white-tailed deer in the US.
14) They have very long tongues, which can extend up to 16 inches. Even so, they rarely use it to pull food into their mouths, instead nibbling at the base of leaves till they fall of the branch. The extra-long tongues are more often utilized for grooming themselves and swatting flies away from their eyes.
15) Saola also have large maxillary glands (possibly the largest of any existing mammal) that scientists believe are used to mark territory. The glands, located on their snouts, 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. The flaps retract a little when a saola is marking territory.
16) The only known call that a saola makes is a quiet, monotone bleat that lasts about one second.
17) Saola males are highly territorial and cover a range much wider than females do. A male saola, it is believed, mates with females that occupy a smaller space within the male’s territory. There will be several females within that space.
18) No saola exists in captivity. Reportedly, there were 13 in captivity in 1998 (seven in Laos and six in Vietnam), but they all died. Following that, at least 20 captivities were known in 2008, and all but two known captive saola have died. The two that presumably lived were released back into the wild.
19) Along with thankfully no longer being seen in captivity, saola are rarely seen in their natural habitat. There are very few sightings and even fewer photos via wildlife cams. Due to the elusive animal living in remote regions with difficult terrain to navigate, most of the sightings are attributed to local villagers rather than scientists.
20) Saola typically live in wet broadleaf, evergreen (or mixed evergreen-deciduous) forests with little to no dry season. They are unique to the Annamite Mountains which stretch along the border of Vietnam and Laos. Saola inhabit possibly 15 different pockets of forest in this area and hangout primarily between 1000-3500 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.
22) And, they are always found near fresh, running water.
23) In total, all of the saola in the world are thought to live in a range that covers about 10,000 acres. A single Siberian tiger can have a territory more than twice this size, and there are numerous singly-owned ranches in Texas larger than this. The state of Rhode Island is over 750,000 acres.
24) Despite the whole of the saola population being crammed into such a tiny space, they are solitary creatures. Couples are sometimes seen, though this is generally a mother and child rather than two mating adults. On rare occasions, they have been spotted moving in small groups of three and on up to seven individuals.
25) The (in)frequency with which the animal is photographed by wildlife cams suggests a small and dwindling population. The animal is so rare and elusive that most of the saola information we have, particularly regarding their habits, is based on accounts of local villagers. Some of the presumed characteristics were observed by scientists in those brief spans of unsuccessful captivity. In other words, information is limited.
26) Like other bovines, the saola diet is vegetarian. The herbivores feed on figs leaves and other leafy plants along river banks. They seem to be rather indiscriminate about the plants they eat, but they do have favorites: Schismatoglottis, a non-aromatic tropical flowering plant.
27) Based on observations from captivity and mixed accounts from villages, scientists think the saola are diurnal. In other words, they are active during day and sleep at night. Saola are most active in the morning and evening, and they rest in the heat of midday. At night, they hide from predators (probably leopards, tigers, and dholes) and rarely feed in the dark.
28) Though the lifespan of a saola is unknown, it is believed to be somewhere in the 8-11-year range. Incredibly, this informaton is based on observations of a single animal. That said, antelope live to be roughly this age, though cattle and ox—the closer relatives—last about twice as long. Obviously, this would also only apply to wild saola as they don’t survive long at all in captivity.
29) The breeding season in Laos occurs from just before September to the middle of November, and this is likely to coincide with births being the end of dry season. For the same reason, this timing could be different in Vietnam because the wet and dry seasons are different there.
30) The gestation period of saola is thought to be around eight months, and births seem to be just into the regional rainy season, from April to June (in Laos). Like other bovines, saola normally give birth to a single, live calf.
Why is the Saola Endangered?
31) The number of saola alive is somewhat of a mystery because sightings are so rare. Estimates of the population typically bottom out in the low double digits and never exceed a few hundred. What is known, via the infrequent sightings and accounts of local villagers, is that the population seems to be decreasing.
32) According to the Saola Working Group, the number one cause of the decreasing population of saola is hunting. They are often caught in snares meant for boar, sambar, or muntjac deer. Local villagers use the traps to capture food and protect crops, and this unfortunately means the occasional (and extreme rare) saola gets snagged. Due to its rarity, village hunters also receive esteem for bringing one home.
33) Additionally, hunting, i.e. poaching, for traditional Chinese medicines has been an issue in the area. The facial glands of the saola are used medicinally.
34) Saola are also being challenged by habitat loss. One of the major reasons for this is agriculture. Saola habitat is continually destroyed in an effort to create new plantations. More so, though, rapid large-scale infrastructure, principally for transportation, is fragmenting the habitat, and saola have proven not to be well-suited for cohabiting with humans.
35) Because none are in captivity and so few are in the wild, the saola may be the most endangered species in the world.
36) In addition to its distinction as critically endangered by the IUCN, saola are part of The Zoological Society of London’s EDGE (Evolutionary Distinct & Globally Endangered) list. And, they were included in the ZCL’s list of the 100 most at-risk animals.
37) WWF is working to strengthen existing and establish new protected areas where saola live, including the Vu Quang Nature Reserve, where the animal was first discovered by scientists. WWF is also working at reserves in the Thua-Thein Hue and Quang Nam provinces of Vietnam in aid of saola.
38) The Saola Working Group was formed by IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Wild Cattle Specialist Group in 2006, and it is supported by Global Wildlife Conservation. Saola Working Group has been the catalyst for the One Plan approach, concerting the efforts to save these animals. Saola Foundation is a fundraising group geared toward financing SWG.
39) Scientists out of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, a part of the Institute of Biotechnology in Hanoi, dabbled with the idea of cloning the saola as a conservation effort. Obviously, this would be a difficult task, even with very familiar animals, so trying to clone one that has struggled to live in captivity didn’t get very far.
Why Is It Called Asian Unicorn?
40) For those readers, and undoubtedly there were some, who were excited by the notion that real unicorns— horse-like creatures with a single horn protruding from their brow— exist, there is probably a large and looming question: If the saola is more cow than horse, and if it looks more like a saola antelope than a cow, and if it has two horns rather than one…and it doesn’t fly or have a mane or have anything to do with rainbows, why exactly is it nicknamed the Asian unicorn? I mean, isn’t that a bit misleading! In fact, the name “Asian unicorn” has nothing to do with their large horns but is referencing the rarity of a sighting. Obviously, unicorn sightings are still probably a little more unusual.
Why Saving the Saola Is Important?
Despite being so remotely in such a small space and having a very small population, this animal—like all animals, even mosquitoes—is an integral part of the world. Within the small range that it occupies, even if we humans can’t identify it just yet, the saola plays a significant role in the ecosystem. A two-hundred-pound animal can’t help but do so.
With that in mind, we have to consider the implications of not doing all we can to save animals like the saola, and it’s not hard to imagine. We can visit places in the world where animals have recently gone extinct, and they are just emptier, not whole. Biologically speaking, whatever niche endangered animals fill in their existence becomes infinitely more identifiable in their absence.
Consider the degradation of the once fertile Great Plains of America when buffalo were brought to near extinction in order to develop the land into cattle farms and agricultural fields. After the buffalo were no longer roaming, naturally and sustainably maintaining the grasslands, the landscape quickly degraded into desert-like desolation. The further tragedy of it is that most of those slaughtered buffalo weren’t even used for food, which they would have provided more of than the cattle that were subsequently overgrazed on the land.
To put it succinctly, when do we stop making the same mistake? When do we begin to value animals like the buffalo and the saola, recognizing their place on the planet as just as significant as ours? Time is limited to save the fabled Asian Unicorn, a critically endangered animal so wild it can’t be contained in zoos or animal parks. Isn’t that just remarkable. –Jonathon Engels, photo by Bill Ribochaud courtesy Flickr via CC 2.0