Scientists intensify hunt for ‘Asian unicorn’, one of the world’s rarest animals | The threatened species


WWeighing 80 to 100 kg and sporting long, straight horns, white patches on the face and large facial scent glands, the saola does not look like a difficult animal to spot. But it is only 1992 that this elusive creature was discovered, becoming the first large mammal new to science in over 50 years.

Nicknamed the “Asian unicorn,” the saola continues to be elusive. They have never been seen by a biologist in the wild and were only filmed a handful of times. There are reports of villagers trying to keep them captive but they died after a few weeks, possibly due to poor diet.

It was during a wildlife survey in the remote Vũ Quang Nature Reserve, a 212 square mile forested area in north-central Vietnam, in 1992, that biologist Do Tuoc came across two skulls and a pair. of trophy horns belonging to an unknown animal.

Twenty more specimens, including a full skin, were later collected, and in 1993 lab tests revealed that the animal was not just a new species, but a whole new genus in the Bovidae family, which includes cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes.

Originally named Vu Quang Ox, the animal was later called saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) – meaning “spindle horns”, the arms or poles (sao) of a spinning wheel (la) according to the Lao-speaking ethnic groups in Laos and neighboring Vietnam.

A saola photographed by a camera trap in Laos in 1999. Photography: William Robichaud

The find has been hailed as one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century, but Less than 30 years later, the saola population is believed to have declined massively due to commercial poaching of wildlife, which has exploded in Vietnam since 1994. Although the saola is not directly targeted by poachers, the The main threat is an intensive commercial trap that supplies animals with medicine or bushmeat.

Despite efforts to improve patrols in the Annamese Mountain Nature Reserves, a major mountain range stretching about 680 miles across Laos, Vietnam and northeastern Cambodia, poaching has escalated. “Thousands of people use snares, so there are millions of them in the forest, which means populations of large mammals and some birds have no way of escaping and are collapsing across the Annamites.” , explains Minh Nguyen, a doctoral student at Colorado State University. , which is studying the impact of snares on the critically endangered Bigwood Muntjac.

In 2001, the saola population was estimated between 70 and 700 in Laos and several hundred in Vietnam. More recently, experts put the number at less than 100 – a decline which led to the inclusion of the critically endangered species on the IUCN Red List in 2006, the highest risk category a species could have before extinction at the ‘wild state. The animal was last filmed in 2013 in the Saola Nature Reserve in central Vietnam. Since then, villagers continue to report its presence in and around Pu Mat National Park in Vietnam and in Bolikhamxay province in Laos.

In 2006, William Robichaud and Simon Hedges, biologist and specialist in wildlife conservation and the fight against illegal wildlife trade in Asia and Africa, co-founded the Saola working group (SWG) with the aim of finding the last saolas in the wild for a captive breeding program, in order to reintroduce the species in the future in the wild, in a natural habitat free from threats.

The SWG connects conservation organizations in Laos and Vietnam to raise awareness, collect information from the local population and research saola. But the animals continue to escape the team. Between 2017 and 2019, the SWG conducted intensive search using 300 camera traps in an 11 square mile area of ​​Khoun Xe Nongma National Protected Area in Laos. Not one of the millions of photographs captured saola.

According to IUCN, only about 30% of Saola’s potential habitat has been surveyed for wildlife and potentially as little as 2% have been extensively searched for the species. Technologies limit capabilities – camera traps are not good at detecting individual animals that are spread over a wide area, especially in the dense, humid forest of the Saola Range. In August this year, the IUCN Species Survival Commission called for more investment in saola research. “It is clear that research efforts need to be dramatically increased in scale and intensity if we are to save this species from extinction,” said Nerissa Chao, director of the Asian Species Action Partnership. the IUCN SSC.

Saola eating leaves by author Veronika Perková for her podcast How to save saola
A drawing of a saola eating leaves. Photography: Veronika Perková

An organism, the Saola Foundation, is raising money for a new initiative that would train dogs to spot signs of saola such as feces. All samples would then be studied on site using rapid saola-specific DNA test kits developed in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society Molecular Laboratory in New York City. If the kits give a positive result within an hour, expert wildlife trackers will start looking for saola in the forest.

If successful, the captured saolas will be taken to a captive breeding center developed by the SWG and the Vietnamese government in Bạch Mã National Park in central Vietnam.

“We are at a point in the history of conservation,” says Robichaud, President of the Saola Foundation. “We know how to find and save this magnificent animal, which has lived on planet Earth for perhaps 8 million years. We just need the world to come together and support the effort. It will not cost much and the reward, for the saola, for the Annamese mountains and for ourselves, will be enormous.

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