Often called the Asian unicorn, little is known about the enigmatic saola in the two decades since its discovery. None exist in captivity and this rarely-seen mammal is already critically endangered. Scientists have categorically documented saola in the wild on only four occasions to date.
The saola was discovered in May 1992 during a joint survey carried out by the Ministry of Forestry of Vietnam and WWF in north-central Vietnam. The team found a skull with unusual long, straight horns in a hunter’s home and knew it was something extraordinary. The find proved to be the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years and one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.
Saola (pronounced: sow-la) are recognized by two parallel horns with sharp ends, which can reach 20 inches in length and are found on both males and females. Meaning “spindle horns” in Vietnamese, they are a cousin of cattle but resemble an antelope. Saola have striking white markings on the face and large maxillary glands on the muzzle, which could be used to mark territory or attract mates. They are found only in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos.
As forests disappear under the chainsaw to make way for agriculture, plantations and infrastructure, saola are being squeezed into smaller spaces. The added pressure from rapid and large-scale infrastructure in the region is also fragmenting saola habitat. Conservationists are concerned that this is allowing hunters easy access to the once untouched forest of the saola and may reduce genetic diversity in the future.