Saving the Elusive “Asian Unicorn”: Is It too Late?

Fagjun | Published 2017-08-30 13:11

A 1996 photo of a captive female saola.

[Photo by William Robichaud]



Conservationists are hoping to breed the rare and critically endangered saola, considered by some to be an “Asian unicorn” due to how elusive it is. The animal is so rare that biologists have never seen a live one in the wild.


According to the IUCN, there are fewer than 750 saolas in the wild, which is a dangerously low number. William Robichaud, founding coordinator of the Saola Working Group, says that saolas may actually number just about a hundred. Currently, there are no saolas in captivity.


This, however, is what conservationists are seeking to change. A captive breeding program may just be the last hope for pulling saolas from the brink of extinction. The problem is that saolas are so elusive that capturing a mating pair is likely to be extremely difficult. Even if conservationists manage to capture a male and female saola, the pair may refuse to mate, or they may encounter other problems that can delay breeding or even make it impossible.


The Plight of the Saolas

A photo of Martha

[Photo by Wliliam Robichaud]



The so-called Asian unicorn certainly is distinct. It has two horns that soar past its head, unique and unmistakable facial markings, and an ungulate that looks more African than Asian.


In 1992, a hunter in Vietnam presented scientists with the skull of an animal that no biologist has ever seen. The animal was, unsurprisingly, known to the locals, but unknown to science until the end of the 20th century. This was the first time that scientists saw a saola, albeit not a living one.


Four years later, however, Robichaud would have quite a rare experience. Hmong hunters in Laos captured a saola, later named named Martha, which Robuchaud spent three weeks studying. Martha was shy, but she let Robichaud stroke her and ate food out of his palm. Unfortunately, Martha died after just three weeks in captivity. Even worse, it turned out that Martha had been pregnant with a male fetus.


This is another hurdle in efforts to establish a captive breeding program. According to Robichaud, saolas do not do well in captivity. This may be due to their need for a specialized diet as well the stressful conditions they're kept in.


Breeding the Asian Unicorn in Captivity

A saola in the wild captured by camera traps

[Photo by William Robichaud]



It was only in 1998, 1999, and 2013 that camera traps were able to capture images of saolas in the wild. The elusiveness of the species is indicative of a very small population. Saolas live only in the Annamite mountains, which is home to a number of rare and newly-discovered species.


The real threat to saolas is poaching, and there isn't anywhere that the species is safe. Saolas aren't even the real targets of poaching—poachers set up traps to capture other animals, and saolas just happen to get caught in the traps as well. Conservationists now say that they will not be able to guarantee that the species will survive if left alone in the wild.


Thus, captive breeding may be the last hope to save this beautiful, elusive Asian unicorn. Conservationists will be going against a lot of odds, the first and perhaps biggest of which is actually capturing a breeding pair. However, conservationists can't help but be optimistic.

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