‘Will be huge!’ Scientists scramble in hunt for ultra-rare ‘Asian unicorn’

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First discovered in 1992, the ultra-rare creature became the first large mammal new to science in over 50 years. But to this day, the saola has still never been found by a biologist in the wild. And the creatures have only been caught on camera and handful of times. It was only during a survey of wildlife in 1992 in Vietnam that evidence of the creatures were first unveiled.

Biologist Do Tuoc stumbled upon two skulls and a pair of trophy horns belonging to an unknown animal in n the Vũ Quang nature reserve.

The finds were later revealed to be what we now call saola.

The discovery was hailed as one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.

But now, the saola population is believed to have plummeted due to commercial wildlife poaching.

The Saola Working Group (SWG) was set up back in 2006 with the aim of finding the last saolas remaining in the wild for a captive breeding programme.

This would help reintroduce the species back into the wild in future, in a natural habitat away from threats.

The organisation connects conservation organisations in Laos and Vietnam to raise awareness, collect information from local people, and search for the special animals.

But the Asian unicorns are so rare that the SGW has still never found one.

Between 2017 and 2019, the organisation conducted an intensive search using 300 camera traps in an 11 square mile area of the Khoun Xe Nongma national protected area in Laos.

But out of a million photographs, not even one snapped the elusive saola.

Back in august 2020, the IUCN Species Survival Commission called for more investment in the search for the mysterious creature.

And while the hunt for the saola has gone on for decades, the IUCN claims that only around 30 percent of potential saola habitat has had any form of wildlife survey.

It is also possible that as little as little as 2 percent has been searched intensively for the species, the organisation claims.

Nerissa Chao, Director of the IUCN SSC Asian Species Action Partnership, said: “It is clear that search efforts must be significantly ramped up in scale and intensity if we are to save this species from extinction.”

Currently, the technologies used to find the mammals are limited.

Camera traps are reportedly poor at detecting individual animals that are spread across a large area.

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This is especially the case in the dense forest of the saola range.

Now, the Saola Foundation, is raising money for a new initiative to train up dogs to detect saola signs such as dung.

Any samples found would be studied onsite using rapid saola-specific DNA field test kits.

These are being developed together with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Molecular Laboratory in New York.

If kits come back positive within an hour, expert wildlife trackers will start searching for saola in the forest.

If they manage to capture a saola, the creature would be taken to a captive breeding centre.

This is being developed by the SWG and the Vietnamese government at Bạch Mã national park in central Vietnam.

The president of the Saola Foundation said: “We stand at a moment of conservation history,”

“We know how to find and save this magnificent animal, which has been on planet Earth for perhaps 8 million years.

“We just need the world to come together and support the effort.

It won’t cost much, and the reward, for saola, for the Annamite mountains, and for ourselves, will be huge.”

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