Saturday, May 18, 2013

S is for SAOLA

I really enjoy finding animals I've never heard of and trying to learn about them.  Such is the case with the Saola (perhaps it was the reference to 'unicorn' that drew my attention to it).
S is for SAOLA (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), also known as 'Vu Quang ox' or 'Asian unicorn' and also, infrequently 'Vu Quang bovid', one of the world's rarest mammals.  The saola is a forest-dwelling bovine found only in the Annamite Range of Vietnam and Laos.  The species was defined following a discovery of remains in 1992 in Vu Quang Nature Reserve by a joint survey of the Ministry of Forestry and the World Wide Fund for Nature.  The team found three skulls with unusual long straight horns kept in hunters' houses.  In their article, the team proposed "a three month survey to observe the living animal", but more than 20 years later, there is still no reported sighting of a saloa in the wild by a scientist.

In late August, 2010, a saola was captured by villagers in Laos but it died in captivity before government conservationists could arrange for it to be released back into the wild.  The carcass is being studied with the hope that it will advance scientific understanding of the saola.  Sometimes these animals get caught in snares that have been set to catch animals such as wild boar, sambar and muntjac deer that come to feed on the crops that the farmers have planted.  This has become a problem, especially with the illegal fur trade for medicines, restaurants and food markets.  There have been more than 26,650 snares that have been removed from habitats the saola has lived in for years.

The saola inhabits the Annamite Range's moist forests and the eastern Indochina dry and monsoonal forest.  They have been spotted in steep river valleys at about 300 to 1,800 metres above sea level.  These regions are distant from human settlements covered primarily in evergreen or mixed evergreen and deciduous woodlands.  The species seems to prefer edge zones of the forests.

Saola stay in mountain forests during the wet seasons, when water in streams and rivers is abundant, and move down to the lowlands in winter.  They are shy and never enter cultivated fields or come close to villages.  To date all known captives saola have died, leading to the belief that this species cannot live in captivity.

The saola belongs to the family Novidae and genetic analysis places it in the tribe Bovini; in other words its closest relatives are cattle, true buffaloes, and bison.  However, its simple horns and teeth and some other morphological features are typical of less-derived or 'primitive' bovids.  Saola are antelopes, in the sense that an antelope is any bovid that is not a cow, sheep, buffalo, bison or goat.  It is not known how many individuals exist, as only 11 have been recorded alive.

The saola stands about 85 cms at the shoulder and weighs approximately 90 kg.  The coat is dark brown with a black stripe along the back.  Its legs are darkish and there are white patches on the feet, and white stripes vertically across the cheeks, on the eyebrows and splotches on the nose and chin,  All saolas have slightly backward-curved horns which grow to half a meter in length.  The skin is 1-2mm thick over most of the body, but the skin thickens once you get to the nape of the neck, and the upper shoulders and it goes to 5mm in thickness, this is a very unique adaptation that they have for protection from predators and the rival's horns during a fight.  Local populations report having seen saola travelling in groups of two or three, rarely more.  Saola mark their territories by opening up a flesh flap on their snout to reveal scent glands.  They subsequently rub the underside against objects leaving a musky, pungent paste.  The saola's colossal scent glands are thought to be the largest of any living animal.

The saola is reported to eat small leafy plants - especially fig leaves, and stems along the rivers.  The animal seems to have a browsing diet, considering its small incisors.

Saolas have been referred to as Asian unicorns.  The appellation is apparently due to the saola's rarity and apparently gentle nature and perhaps because both the saola and the oryx have been linked with the unicorn.  There is no known link with the mythical beast; nor with the "Chinese unicorn, the 'qilin'.

The Saola working Group was formed by the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group, in 2006, to protect the saolas and their habitat.  The Saola Working group is a coalition that includes about 40 experts from the Forests Department of Laos and Vietnam, Vitenam's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, Vinh University, biologists and conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Widlife Fund.


  1. Oh. Oh. Wouldn't it be WONDERFUL to see this animal. And I can quite see the unicorn link. Thank you Mimsie, thank you so much. This was something I had never heard of, and I love it.

  2. I feel exactly the same way you do EC. I couldn't see the unicorn link physically but perhaps historically? I also love to find out about animals I am ignorant about.