The saola, one of the rarest and most threatened mammals on Earth, has been caught on camera in Vietnam for the first time in 15 years, the World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, announced on Tuesday.
The enigmatic animal was photographed in September by a camera set up by WWF and the Vietnamese government’s Forest Protection Department in the Central Annamite mountains. The critically endangered saola, which is also known as the Asian unicorn, because it is so rarely seen, has white markings on the face and two parallel horns with sharp ends that can reach up to 50 inches in length.
“When our team first looked at the photos we couldn’t believe our eyes. Saola are the holy grail for South-east Asian conservationists so there was a lot of excitement,” Van Ngoc Thinh, WWF-Vietnam’s country director, said in a statement. “This is a breath-taking discovery and renews hope for the recovery of the species.”
The saola was discovered in the forests of Vu Quang, near Vietnam's border with Laos in 1992 when a joint team from Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and WWF found a skull with unusual horns in a hunter's home. Proven to be the first large mammal ever discovered in more than 50 years, the find was one of the most spectacular species discoveries of the 20th century, according to the WWF.
“In Vietnam, the last sighting of a saola in the wild was in 1998,” Dang Dinh Nguyen, deputy head of Quang Nam Forest Protection Department and director of Quang Nam’s Saola Nature Reserve, said in the statement.
In 2010, villagers in Bolikhamxay, a province of Laos in the middle of the country, captured a saola. However, the animal subsequently died.
According to WWF, because of the saola’s elusive nature, scientists have not been able to make a precise population estimate of the animal even 20 years after its discovery. Saola’s rarity, distinctiveness and vulnerability make it one of the greatest priorities for conservation in the region, the WWF said, adding that the current population of the species is thought to be a few hundred at a maximum and possibly only a few dozen at a minimum.
In the area where the saola was most recently photographed, WWF has implemented a law enforcement model in which forest guards are recruited from local communities to remove snares and battle illegal hunting, which is considered to be the greatest threat to the saola's survival.
“Saola are caught in wire snares set by hunters to catch other animals, such as deer and civets, which are largely destined for the lucrative illegal wildlife trade,” Van Ngoc said. “Since 2011, forest guard patrols in the CarBi area have removed more than 30,000 snares from this critical saola habitat and destroyed more than 600 illegal hunters’ camps.”