Other Animals

Scientists step up hunt for ‘Asian unicorn’, one in every of world’s rarest animals

Weighing 80-100kg and sporting lengthy straight horns, white spots on its face and huge facial scent glands, the saola doesn’t sound like an animal that might be arduous to identify.

Nevertheless it was not till 1992 that this elusive creature was found, changing into the primary massive mammal new to science in additional than 50 years.

Nicknamed the “Asian unicorn”, the saola continues to be elusive. They’ve by no means been seen by a biologist within the wild and have been camera-trapped solely a handful of instances. There are experiences of villagers attempting to maintain them in captivity however they’ve died after a number of weeks, most likely because of the incorrect weight loss program.

It was throughout a survey of wildlife within the distant Vũ Quang nature reserve, a 212 sq. mile forested space of north central Vietnam, in 1992, that biologist Do Tuoc got here throughout two skulls and a pair of trophy horns belonging to an unknown animal.

Twenty extra specimens, together with an entire pores and skin, had been subsequently collected and, in 1993, laboratory exams revealed the animal to be not solely a brand new species, however a wholly new genus within the bovid household, which incorporates cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes.

Initially named Vu Quang Ox, the animal was later referred to as saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) – that means “spindle horns”, the arms or posts (sao) of a spinning wheel (la) in line with Lao-speaking ethnic teams in Laos and neighbouring Vietnam.

The invention was hailed as some of the spectacular zoological discoveries of the twentieth century however lower than 30 years later the saola inhabitants is believed to have declined massively as a result of business wildlife poaching, which has exploded in Vietnam since 1994.

Despite the fact that the saola isn’t immediately focused by poachers, intensive business snaring that provides animals to be used in conventional Asian drugs or as bushmeat serves as the first risk.

A saola photographed by a digicam lure in Laos in 1999. {Photograph}: William Robichaud

Regardless of efforts to enhance patrolling of nature reserves within the Annamite mountains, a serious mountain vary extending about 680 miles via Laos, Vietnam and into north-east Cambodia, poaching has been intensifying. “1000’s of individuals use snares, so there are tens of millions of them within the forest, which suggests populations of huge mammals and a few birds don’t have any strategy to escape and are collapsing all through the Annamites,” says Minh Nguyen, a PhD pupil at Colorado State College, who research the affect of snares on critically endangered large-antlered muntjac.

In 2001, the saola inhabitants was estimated to quantity 70 to 700 in Laos and a number of other hundred in Vietnam. Extra not too long ago, specialists have put the quantity at fewer than 100 – a decline that led to the species being listed as critically endangered on the IUCN crimson checklist in 2006, the very best danger class {that a} species can have earlier than extinction within the wild. The animal was final camera-trapped in 2013 within the Saola Nature Reserve in central Vietnam. Since then, villagers proceed to report its presence in areas in and round Pu Mat nationwide park in Vietnam and in Bolikhamxay province in Laos.

We stand at a second of conservation historical past. We all know discover and save this magnificent animal. We simply want the world to come back collectively
William Robichaud, Saola Basis

In 2006, William Robichaud and Simon Hedges, a biologist and specialist on wildlife conservation and countering the unlawful wildlife commerce in Asia and Africa, co-founded the Saola Working Group (SWG) with the intention of discovering the final saolas within the wild for a captive breeding programme, with a view to reintroduce the species again into the wild in future, in a pure habitat that’s free from threats.

The SWG connects conservation organisations in Laos and Vietnam to lift consciousness, accumulate info from native folks, and seek for saola. However the animals proceed to elude the crew. Between 2017 and 2019, the SWG carried out an intensive search utilizing 300 digicam traps in an 11 sq. mile space of the Khoun Xe Nongma nationwide protected space in Laos. Not one of many million pictures captured saola.

In response to the IUCN, solely about 30% of potential Saola habitat has had any type of wildlife survey and doubtlessly as little as 2% has been searched intensively for the species. Applied sciences restrict the capabilities – digicam traps aren’t good at detecting particular person animals which are unfold throughout a big space, particularly within the damp, dense forest of the saola vary. In August this 12 months, the IUCN Species Survival Fee referred to as for extra funding within the seek for the saola. “It’s clear that search efforts have to be considerably ramped up in scale and depth if we’re to save lots of this species from extinction,” stated Nerissa Chao, Director of the IUCN SSC Asian Species Motion Partnership

A drawing of a saola eating leaves. Photograph: Veronika Perková
A drawing of a saola consuming leaves. {Photograph}: Veronika Perková

One organisation, the Saola Basis, is elevating cash for a brand new initiative that might practice canine to detect saola indicators similar to dung. Any samples would then be studied onsite utilizing fast saola-specific DNA area take a look at kits being developed together with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Molecular Laboratory in New York. Ought to the kits return a optimistic outcome inside an hour, skilled wildlife trackers will begin looking for saola within the forest.

If profitable, captured saolas shall be taken to a captive breeding centre being developed by the SWG and the Vietnamese authorities at Bạch Mã nationwide park in central Vietnam.

“We stand at a second of conservation historical past,” says Robichaud, who’s president of the Saola Basis. “We all know discover and save this magnificent animal, which has been on planet Earth for maybe 8m years. We simply want the world to come back collectively and help the hassle. It gained’t price a lot, and the reward, for saola, for the Annamite mountains, and for ourselves, shall be enormous.”

This article by Veronika Perková was first printed by The Guardian on 7 January 2022. Lead Picture: The saola has solely been captured on digicam a handful of instances. {Photograph}: WWF/AP.

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