In 1992, something extraordinary happened. The first new species of large mammal had been discovered in more than half a century, and scientists hailed it as one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
THE SAOLA (pronounced: sow-la) was first identified in north-central Vietnam during a survey by researchers from Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry and the WWF.
They’d noticed an unusual skull with long, elegant horns in a hunter’s collection, and that set them on a mission to find a live one in the forests of the remote Annamite Mountains:
A Ka Tu hunter with saola skull in the Quang Nam Province of Vietnam. (Image Credit: Jeremy Holden/WWF)
Home to an array of rare and elusive species, including the gorgeous duoc langur monkey and the recently discovered Annamite striped rabbit, the Annamite Mountains run through Laos, Vietnam, and a small area in northeast Cambodia.
The region is one of the most biodiverse in the world, but for many decades, was too dangerous for scientists to explore due to political conflicts.
But in 1992, spurred on by the hunter’s trophy, local researchers managed to find 20 saola in the wild, and the species, Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, was declared the rarest animal in the world at the time.
Since their discovery, scientists have only ever spotted saola on four separate occasions, and none have survived in captivity, which makes typical conservation approaches near-impossible.
Today, no one knows how many are left, but it’s thought that the remaining population is no more than a couple of hundred individuals, or it could be as low as a few dozen.
Female saola in the Bolikhamxay Province of Laos. (Image Credit: William Robichaud)
The saola might be rare and elusive, but one thing’s for sure – there’s no mistaking it if you’re lucky enough to spot one.
Standing more than 80 cm tall and weighing about 90 kg, the saola is related to cattle, goats, and antelopes, but is so different from all other known bovids, it’s been placed into its own genus (Pseudoryx).
Its name has been translated to mean “spindle-horned”, and those things can grow up 50 cm long – twice the length of the head. Saola are known as saht-supahp by the Hmong people of Laos, which means "the polite animal", because they’re said to tip-toe quietly through the forest like a well-mannered guest.
This combination of its gentle nature, elongated horns, and elusive tendencies has earned the saola another moniker: the Asian unicorn – sweet, elegant, and secretive all at once.
By far, the biggest threat to the species is habitat loss and hunting. According to the IUCN, the forest guards recruited by WWF-Vietnam from local villages had by the end of 2015 removed 75,295 snare traps and dismantled 1,000 poaching and illegal logging camps in saola habitat.
Over the past decade, saola-protected areas have been established in the provinces of Quang Nam and Thua Thien-Hue in the Annamite Mountains, and WWF researchers are working with locals to manage forest areas and help them with surveys.
This year, Vietnam will launch its first-ever saola conservation program, which will feature a world-first breeding program in Bach Ma National Park.
Other than Antarctica, Australia is the only continent on Earth without its own native bovids. So the saola – along with all the other weird and wonderful wild cattle that hide out in South-East Asia’s dense forests – is the next best thing.
Find out more about the conservation efforts here: