In a village in Bolikhamxay, Laos, an Asian Unicorn was spotted for the first time since 1999. The people of the village captured the animal, also known as a saola, a creature that resembles an antelope with two long horns that curve backward over its head. The villagers captured the adult male saola and then photographed it; however, the saola died in captivity before the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) group could reach the remote area.
After the announcement of the saola’s capture in late August by the Laotian government, the Bolikhamxay Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office sent a team to examine the saola and release it back into the wild. The team was advised by the IUCN, as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society. Though the saola survived long enough to be photographed, it died shortly after having its picture taken and the team was not able to release it into the wild.
Since 1999, this is the only confirmed record of the saola, and the records of the animal taken in 1999 were only done by automatic camera traps. There has never been a single report of encountering the saola in the wild. Discovered in 1992, the saola was found in Vietnam near the border of Laos and resembles the North African antelope. It has long, sloping horns that curve slightly back over its head and face, which have white markings; however, the saola is more closely related to wild cattle than antelope.
Status and Appearance of the Saola (Asian Unicorn)
How this secretive and elusive creature earned the nickname “Asian Unicorn” is no surprise. Its ability to hide from sight so often and its appearance could easily be mistaken for the mythical beast. And the Chinese qilin, or unicorn, was more goat-like in appearance than horse, like the European portrayal of the hard-to-spot mythical beast. Although the saola does not occur in China today, and there is no cold, hard evidence to support that it ever did.
Saolas are considered “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. While it isn’t certain how many survive in the wild, the estimates say no more than a few hundred exist. There are no saolas in zoos or captivity anywhere, and no knowledge of how to keep them alive and care for them in captivity. Should the saola go extinct in the wild, it will be lost as a species.
In a statement released by the Provincial Conservation Unit of Bolikhamxay Province, the following was stated: “The death of the saola is unfortunate. But at least it confirms an area where it still occurs and the government will immediately move to strengthen the conversation efforts there.”
Studying the Saola (Asian Unicorn)
While the reasons for taking the creature into captivity are not clear, the carcass was taken to Pakxan, the provincial capital, after the saola’s death to be studied by WCS biologists and the Lao government. All the parts of the saola were preserved to be studied and referenced in the future. This is the first opportunity that scientists have had to preserve a saola so thoroughly.
Dr. Pierre Comizzoli, a veterinarian with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and a member of the IUCN Saola Working Group, said this about the unfortunate death of the saola: “Study of the carcass can yield some good from this unfortunate incident. Our lack of knowledge of saola biology is a major constraint to efforts to conserve it. This can be a major step forward in understanding this remarkable and mysterious species.”
Because of the incident, the Lao Department of Forestry and the provincial and district authorities are educating and urging the villagers to not capture any more of the elusive saola.
Asian ‘unicorn’ spotted, dies in captivity