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Scientists step up hunt for ‘Asian unicorn’, one of world’s rarest animals | Endangered species

Weighing 80-100kg and sporting lengthy straight horns, white spots on its face and enormous facial scent glands, the saola doesn’t sound like an animal that might be laborious to identify. However it was not till 1992 that this elusive creature was found, turning into the primary giant mammal new to science in additional than 50 years.

Nicknamed the “Asian unicorn”, the saola continues to be elusive. They’ve by no means been seen by a biologist within the wild and have been camera-trapped solely a handful of times. There are reviews of villagers attempting to maintain them in captivity however they’ve died after a couple of weeks, most likely as a result of incorrect weight-reduction plan.

It was throughout a survey of wildlife within the distant Vũ Quang nature reserve, a 212 sq. mile forested space of north central Vietnam, in 1992, that biologist Do Tuoc got here throughout two skulls and a pair of trophy horns belonging to an unknown animal.

Twenty extra specimens, together with an entire pores and skin, had been subsequently collected and, in 1993, laboratory assessments revealed the animal to be not solely a brand new species, however a completely new genus within the bovid household, which incorporates cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes.

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Initially named Vu Quang Ox, the animal was later known as saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) – which means “spindle horns”, the arms or posts (sao) of a spinning wheel (la) in response to Lao-speaking ethnic teams in Laos and neighbouring Vietnam.

A wild saola photographed by camera trap in Laos in 1999.
A saola photographed by a digicam lure in Laos in 1999. {Photograph}: William Robichaud

The invention was hailed as one of probably the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the twentieth century however lower than 30 years later the saola inhabitants is believed to have declined massively as a result of industrial wildlife poaching, which has exploded in Vietnam since 1994. Although the saola just isn’t immediately focused by poachers, intensive industrial snaring that provides animals for use in conventional Asian drugs or as bushmeat serves as the first risk.

Regardless of efforts to enhance patrolling of nature reserves within the Annamite mountains, a serious mountain vary extending about 680 miles via Laos, Vietnam and into north-east Cambodia, poaching has been intensifying. “Hundreds of folks use snares, so there are tens of millions of them within the forest, which suggests populations of giant mammals and a few birds don’t have any option to escape and are collapsing all through the Annamites,” says Minh Nguyen, a PhD pupil at Colorado State College, who research the affect of snares on critically endangered large-antlered muntjac.

In 2001, the saola inhabitants was estimated to quantity 70 to 700 in Laos and several other hundred in Vietnam. Extra just lately, specialists have put the quantity at fewer than 100 – a decline that led to the species being listed as critically endangered on the IUCN purple listing in 2006, the very best danger class {that a} species can have earlier than extinction within the wild. The animal was final camera-trapped in 2013 within the Saola Nature Reserve in central Vietnam. Since then, villagers proceed to report its presence in areas in and round Pu Mat nationwide park in Vietnam and in Bolikhamxay province in Laos.

In 2006, William Robichaud and Simon Hedges, a biologist and specialist on wildlife conservation and countering the unlawful wildlife commerce in Asia and Africa, co-founded the Saola Working Group (SWG) with the purpose of discovering the final saolas within the wild for a captive breeding programme, with a purpose to reintroduce the species again into the wild in future, in a pure habitat that’s free from threats.

The SWG connects conservation organisations in Laos and Vietnam to lift consciousness, acquire info from native folks, and search for saola. However the animals proceed to elude the workforce. Between 2017 and 2019, the SWG carried out an intensive search utilizing 300 digicam traps in an 11 sq. mile space of the Khoun Xe Nongma nationwide protected space in Laos. Not one of the million pictures captured saola.

In accordance with the IUCN, only about 30% of potential Saola habitat has had any form of wildlife survey and doubtlessly as little as 2% has been searched intensively for the species. Applied sciences restrict the capabilities – digicam traps usually are not good at detecting particular person animals which can be unfold throughout a big space, particularly within the damp, dense forest of the saola vary. In August this 12 months, the IUCN Species Survival Fee known as for extra funding within the search for the saola. “It’s clear that search efforts have to be considerably ramped up in scale and depth if we’re to avoid wasting this species from extinction,” mentioned Nerissa Chao, Director of the IUCN SSC Asian Species Motion Partnership

Saola eating leaves by the author Veronika Perková for her podcast How to save saola
A drawing of a saola consuming leaves. {Photograph}: Veronika Perková

One organisation, the Saola Foundation, is elevating cash for a brand new initiative that might prepare canines to detect saola indicators reminiscent of dung. Any samples would then be studied onsite utilizing fast saola-specific DNA subject check kits being developed together with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Molecular Laboratory in New York. Ought to the kits return a optimistic outcome inside an hour, knowledgeable wildlife trackers will begin looking for saola within the forest.

If profitable, captured saolas shall be taken to a captive breeding centre being developed by the SWG and the Vietnamese authorities at Bạch Mã nationwide park in central Vietnam.

“We stand at a second of conservation historical past,” says Robichaud, who’s president of the Saola Basis. “We all know learn how to discover and save this magnificent animal, which has been on planet Earth for maybe 8m years. We simply want the world to return collectively and help the trouble. It received’t price a lot, and the reward, for saola, for the Annamite mountains, and for ourselves, shall be big.”

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Discover extra age of extinction protection right here, and observe biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the newest information and options

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