Species of the Week: Saola

One of EDGE’s top priority species is the saola; a shy and secretive mammal found in Vietnam and Lao PDR that many people have never even heard of.

It’s rarity and unusually long horns have led many people to often referred to the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) as the “Asian unicorn.” Surprisingly, the species was completely unknown to western science until its discovery from horns in hunter’s houses in Vietnam in 1992. Now, less than two decades later it is regarded as one of the most threatened mammals in Southeast Asia.

The critically endangered (IUCN) the saola is a primitive member of the Bovidae family – which includes antelopes, buffalo, bison, cattle, goats and sheep. An adult weighs between 176-220 pounds. Both males and females have two parallel horns with sharp ends, that can be up to 20 inches in length, and  may be a means of defence.

The saola has striking white markings on the face and maxillary glands on the muzzle; actually, the massive maxillary glands are probably the largest of any living animal! Each gland is covered by a muscular lid that can raise like a blind to it. The glands secret a pungent, musky substance that the saola may use to mark territory or attract mates.

Very little is known about the ecology of the saola – due to its rarity and relatively recent discovery. Villagers say that they eat the leaves of fig trees and other bushes along riverbanks as well as some grasses and herbs from ground level. Apparently some saolas, break small saplings in half by wedging them between their horns and twisting their head. The behaviour is not well understood, but other ungulates use similar behaviours for territorial marking.

It seems the saola depends on dense, wet, evergreen forest. Currently it lives at mid-altitude found between 400 and 1,000 metres. It may have however, formerly occurred (or even preferred) wet forest at low elevation – but in Vietnam such areas are now densely settled by people and highly degraded and fragmented.

The few individuals left are restricted to remaining forest in the Annamite Mountains between Vietnam and Lao PDR. These forests are littered with snares set for other species that are a constant threat. There may only be a few tens of individuals left, but actual size of the remaining population is unknown and its rarity, distinctiveness and vulnerability make it one of the greatest priorities for conservation in the region.

Find out how you could become an EDGE champion and helps save extraordinary species like the saola.

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