Scientists Step Up Hunt For ‘Asian Unicorn,’ One of World’s Rarest Animals

An anonymous reader shares a report: Weighing 80-100kg and sporting long straight horns, white spots on its face and large facial scent glands, the saola does not sound like an animal that would be hard to spot. But it was not until 1992 that this elusive creature was discovered, becoming the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years. Nicknamed the "Asian unicorn," the saola continues to be elusive. They have never been seen by a biologist in the wild and have been camera-trapped only a handful of times. There are reports of villagers trying to keep them in captivity but they have died after a few weeks, probably due to the wrong diet. It was during a survey of wildlife in the remote Vu Quang nature reserve, a 212 square mile forested area of 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 complete skin, were subsequently collected and, in 1993, laboratory tests revealed the animal to be not only a new species, but an entirely new genus in the bovid family, which includes cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes. Initially named Vu Quang Ox, the animal was later called saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) -- meaning "spindle horns," the arms or posts (sao) of a spinning wheel (la) according to Lao-speaking ethnic groups in Laos and neighbouring Vietnam. The discovery was 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 wildlife poaching, which has exploded in Vietnam since 1994. Even though the saola is not directly targeted by poachers, intensive commercial snaring that supplies animals for use in traditional Asian medicine or as bushmeat serves as the primary threat.

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