While it is unlikely that unicorns once roamed the Earth, the Saola (also known as the Asian Unicorn) is a very real creature. Though, throughout history it’s been about as hard to find as its magical namesake! A little-known kind of antelope, the Saola is relative of cattle, bison and buffalo and is native to a small range of densely-wooded mountain ranges in Laos and Vietnam.
Saolas (pronounced SOW-LAS) are around 176-220lbs in weight at adulthood and grow to around 33 inches in height from hoof to shoulder. They are unique in that both the males and females have poker-straight horns that go backwards from their heads and can measure around 20 inches in length.
How many are there?
It is considered one of the rarest mammals on the planet. It is so seldom sighted, in fact, that it only received its official classification in 1992 from a study of their remains by scientists. While a three-month search was mounted no living specimen was spotted until over 20 years later when one was snapped by a WWF camera-trap laid in a forest in Vietnam. Scientists have only documented four sightings of the Saola in the wild in the 22 years since its discovery.
One reason that they are so hard to spot is that they prefer to move in low light. They are slow, gentle animals, in fact in Laos they are called saht-supahp which translates as “polite animal” because they are so quiet! So quiet, in fact, that it is simply not known how many of them there are. The number is estimated to be anything from a few dozen to a few hundred, it’s just impossible to say.
Why are they endangered?
Sadly, Saolas are usually only seen when one unwittingly stumbles into a trap or snare. Saolas are very rarely the intended target; often the traps are set by farmers to trap other animals, like wild boars, that threaten their crops. There is a smaller threat of poachers who hunt animals in the area for meat and trade. Habitat reductions and fragmentation is also a huge issue, with their forest-mountain homes being flattened for agricultural and industrial purposes.
What is being done?
WWF are among the charities trying to save the Asian unicorn from becoming as fictional as the magical sort. They’ve been working since the Saola’s discovery to establish strict protected areas and strengthen law enforcement. They work with communities to teach and enforce better forest management and carry out surveys and research to help preserve this elusive breed.