Saola Facts

Scientific Name: Pseudoryx nghetinhensis

Saola
Bill Robichaud/Global Wildlife Conservation

The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) was discovered as skeletal remains in May of 1992 by surveyors from the Ministry of Forestry of Vietnam and the World Wildlife Fund who were mapping the Vu Quang Nature Reserve of north-central Vietnam. At the time of its discovery, the saola was the first large mammal new to science since the 1940s.

Fast Facts: Saola

  • Scientific Name: Pseudoryx nghetinhensis
  • Common Name(s): Saola, Asian unicorn, Vu Quang bovid, Vu Quang ox, spindlehorn
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 35 inches at the shoulder, about 4.9 feet in length
  • Weight: 176–220 pounds
  • Lifespan: 10–15 years
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Habitat: Forests in the Annamite mountain range between Vietnam and Laos
  • Population: 100–750; under 100 are in a protected area
  • Conservation Status: Critically Endangered

Description

The saola (pronounced sow-la and also known as the Asian unicorn or the Vu Quang bovid) has two long, straight, parallel horns that can reach 20 inches in length. Horns are found on both males and females. The saola's fur is sleek and dark brown in color with dappled white markings on the face. It resembles an antelope, but DNA has proven they are more closely related to cow species—which is why they were designated Pseudoryx, or "false antelope." Saola have large maxillary glands on the muzzle, which are thought to be used to mark territory and attract mates.

The saola stands about 35 inches at the shoulder and has been estimated at 4.9 feet long and 176 to 220 pounds in weight. The first living examples studied were two calves captured in 1994: The male died within a few days, but the female calf lived long enough to be taken to Hanoi for observation. She was small, about 4–5 months old and weighed about 40 pounds, with large eyes and a fluffy tail.

All known captive saola have died, leading to the belief that this species cannot live in captivity.

"The team found a skull with unusual long, straight horns in a hunter's home and knew it was something extraordinary, reported the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1993. "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."

Habitat and Range

The saola is only known from the slopes of the Annamite Mountains, a restricted mountainous jungle on the northwest-southeast border between Vietnam and the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos). The region is a subtropical/tropical moist environment which is characterized by evergreen or mixed evergreen and deciduous woodlands, and the species seems to prefer edge zones of the forests. Saola are presumed to reside in mountain forests during the wet seasons and move down to the lowlands in winter.

The species is presumed to have been formerly distributed in wet forests at low elevations, but these areas are now densely populated, degraded, and fragmented. Low population numbers make distribution particularly patchy. The saola has rarely been seen alive since its discovery and is already considered critically endangered. Scientists have categorically documented saola in the wild on only four occasions to date.

Diet and Behavior

Local villagers have reported that the saola browses on leafy plants, fig leaves, and stems along rivers and animal trails; the calf captured in 1994 ate Homalomena aromatica, an herb with heart-shaped leaves.

The bovine appears to be mainly solitary, although it has been seen in groups of two to three and rarely in groups of six or seven. It is possible that they are territorial, marking their territory from their pre-maxillary gland; alternatively, they may have a relatively large home range that allows them to move between areas in response to seasonal changes. Most of the saola killed by the locals have been found in the winter when they are in lowland habitats near to the villages.

Reproduction and Offspring

In Laos, births are said to occur at the beginning of the rains, between April and June. Gestation is estimated to last about eight months, the births may be single, and lifespan is estimated at 5–10 years.

Little else is known about the offspring of this critically endangered species.

Threats

The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Formal surveys have yet to be taken to determine accurate population numbers, but the IUCN estimates the total population to be between 70 and 750 and declining. About 100 animals reside in protected areas.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has prioritized the saola's survival, saying, "Its rarity, distinctiveness, and vulnerability make it one of the greatest priorities for conservation in the Indochina region."

Conservation Status

IN 2006, the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group created the Saola Working Group to protect the saola and their habitat. WWF has been involved with the protection of the saola since its discovery, focused on strengthening and establishing protected areas as well as research, community-based forest management, and strengthening law enforcement. Management of Vu Quang Nature Reserve where the saola was discovered has improved in recent years.

Two new adjacent saola reserves have been established in Thua-Thien Hue and Quang Nam provinces. The WWF has been involved in the setting up and management of protected areas and continues to work on projects in the region.

"Only recently discovered, saola are already extremely threatened," says Dr. Barney Long, WWF Asian species expert. "At a time when species extinction on the planet has accelerated, we can work together to snatch this one back from the edge of extinction."

Saolas and Humans

The main threats to the saola are hunting and fragmentation of its range through habitat loss. Local villagers report that saola are often caught accidentally in snares set in the forest for wild boar, sambar, or muntjac deer—the snares are set for subsistence use and crop protection. In general, increases in the numbers of lowland people hunting to supply the illegal trade in wildlife has led to a massive increase in hunting, driven by traditional medicine demand in China and restaurant and food markets in Vietnam and Laos; but as a newly discovered animal, it is not currently a specific target for either the medicinal or food market as of yet.

However, according to WWF, "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."

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