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Rare Saola, Dubbed “Asian Unicorn,” Sighted for First Time in 21st Century


Photo of a female saola in Laos in 1996.
A female saola pictured in Laos in 1996. Photograph by William Robichaud.

Ghosting through the forests of Laos and Vietnam, the saola—a large ox that looks like an antelope—eluded researchers and their cameras for nearly 14 years.

But camera traps set out by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Vietnamese government in the central Annamite Mountains in Vietnam captured grainy black and white photographs of the extremely rare mammal in September of this year, the group announced this week.

The last sighting of a saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) in the wild was in 1999 in Laos.

“When our team first looked at the photos we couldn’t believe our eyes,” said Van Ngoc Thinh, Vietnam’s country director for the WWF, in a statement. “Saola are the holy grail for south-east Asian conservationists so there was a lot of excitement.”

First discovered in 1992 near the border between Laos and Vietnam, the saola was the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years, according to a WWF statement.

The mammal is often referred to as the “Asian unicorn” because of its rarity, although it sports two pointed horns on its head rather than one.

Although its elusive nature makes for a fun nickname, it has stymied researchers’ efforts to get a handle on the animal’s basic biology and population numbers.

Some estimates place global populations at 250 to 300 animals. But these are based on interviews with villagers who have seen the animal, and on hunting trophies, according to a report in Smithsonian magazine.

It’s incredibly difficult to measure the size of the saola population because conservationists do not have a full grasp on where they live, said Barney Long, the WWF director of species protection and Asian species conservation, in an interview this week.

One of the projects they’re working on to help detect this rare mammal in the field is by using leeches. “Southeast Asian land leeches drink blood from passing animals, and the blood stays in leeches for a few months,” he said. So researchers can test the blood to find out which animals the leech has been feeding on.

If saola blood turns up in a leech, the scientists will know the mammals are in the vicinity.

Listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List, saola often end up as incidental victims to snares set by hunters looking to catch Asiatic black bears or Malayan sun bears. The bears are hunted for their bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. (See “Endangered Moon Bears Harvested for Bile in Vietnam.”)

Habitat fragmentation due mainly to road construction has also hammered saola populations.

The Vietnamese government has created nature preserves in the saola’s range, and banned all hunting in the mammal’s habitat in an effort to protect the animal.

“Since 2011, forest guard patrols in CarBi area have removed more than 30,000 snares from this critical saola habitat and destroyed more than 600 illegal hunters’ camps,” Van Ngoc in the statement. “Confirmation of the presence of the saola in this area is a testament to the dedicated and tireless efforts of these forest guards.”

Danielle Elliot assisted with reporting on this story.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.


  1. Harisankar
    December 6, 2016, 11:34 pm

    It’s not unicorn , the evidence of indus valley seals and arts pronounce unicorn as an animal similar to bull and horse with a single s shaped horn protecting front vise

  2. Kira
    Nag's Head, Virginia
    November 11, 2015, 11:30 am

    To all of the people hating on gingersnap’s comment, it’s actually a good question. If we can understand the flavor of the animal, we can introduce a less endangered species into kitchens and stop the hunting trade on them. GUYS!!! CHILL THE HOLY HECK OUT!!!

  3. Googan
    September 30, 2015, 7:05 pm

    I guess the people commenting that “this is not a unicorn” forgot to read the article. It’s called a “METAPHOR” people…..and to say that the mythological unicorns have the body of a horse is just another misconception when goats/antelopes (eland, oryx) and even bulls had been referred to as “unicorns” in mythology…..GREAT discovery!

  4. Sean Nolan
    May 28, 2014, 3:02 pm

    It is a rare member of the animal kingdom, drawing too much attention to it will make it a target of wealthy trophy hunters

  5. Gizmo0001
    April 14, 2014, 4:30 pm

    My friend, that is not a Unicorn. A Unicorn only has one horn and that is in the middle of its head. The body is that of a Horse. This is a kind of Antelope.

  6. myplanetearth
    December 22, 2013, 11:14 am

    rare hidden should be protected else not to seen again

  7. Tim Schofield
    Scottsdale, AZ
    December 14, 2013, 11:24 am

    Why would anyone, anywhere call a two horned animal a Unicorn? And why would I post about it?

  8. g1ng3r sn4p
    Over the Rainbow
    December 9, 2013, 12:28 am

    Charley the unicorns new best friend, Hen-kong the Unicorn!

  9. nch420
    December 3, 2013, 10:14 am

    i left my earth space assignment for this what a waste nof my time!!!!!!!

  10. Knot Reel
    Sesame Street
    November 25, 2013, 10:00 pm

    I think Ginger Snap’s question is very thoughtful.

  11. deYogaZ
    November 23, 2013, 12:24 pm

    I don’t know what saola’s size but it looks like an antelope although I never seen the real saola from real life. If they were such a rare mammal, local citizens should breed them instead of just hunt them

  12. Raven
    November 21, 2013, 2:29 pm

    I dont think thats a unicorn lol. RIPOFF!!!!!!!!!!! I LEFT MY SCHOOL PROJECT FOR THIS?!?!? CRAZY

  13. Hannah Buch
    Canada, British Columbia
    November 21, 2013, 11:15 am

    That is just beautifull! An amazing creature. I hope they make it a safe habitat thing for it !

    Oh, and by the way, would you people stop being so mean to gingersnap!? I know it’s not a very good question AT ALL but you guys don’t have to be such bullies about it!!!!

  14. Phil Rodriques
    November 20, 2013, 12:49 am

    Sometimes its best to just keep information like this in the dark from the rest of the world. There’s a reason they eluded everyone for 14 years. Leave them be.

  15. Maritza Zapata
    Fort Lauderdale, Fl
    November 19, 2013, 7:23 pm

    Live and Let Live.
    Very interesting but leave it alone, no more investigations, experiment let it be..

  16. Lucas
    November 19, 2013, 1:49 pm

    @Jay Lederman They said it was last sighted in 1999, but discovered in 1992. This leads me to believe that it was possible for a photograph to be taken in 1996.

  17. Tien Thanh
    November 19, 2013, 1:12 pm

    “Since 2011, forest guard patrols in CarBi area have removed more than 30,000 snares from this critical saola habitat and destroyed more than 600 illegal hunters’ camps,”

    i believe it’s Cat Bi instead of CarBi.

  18. Penny
    United States
    November 19, 2013, 12:32 pm

    @ ahamed…um, before commenting on photo why don’t u read the photo caption. This photo was taken in 1999!!!

    @gingersnap…..u have the dumbest comment I have yet to see on here. What do they taste like???? Really???

  19. Lorena Montesinos
    November 19, 2013, 11:56 am

    Ni lo den a conocer al mundo… la raza humana comenzarà a exterminarlo… asì es, tristemente.

  20. dgcritters
    November 19, 2013, 10:57 am

    i have the national geographic magazine when they found this unicorn once before, was kool then and is very kool now, I love the fact that I can tell my grandkids there is such a thing as a unicorn…..

  21. Kristine
    November 19, 2013, 9:46 am

    It would be nice to see them have a population high enough to pull some from the wild and put them in a protected breeding program to get their numbers up as was done for a few other species…

  22. Ahamed
    Sri Lanka
    November 19, 2013, 7:45 am

    I can see a captured animal in said a enclosure,,,,guys look at the background it’s a man made stone wall and plants are not grown same one feeding it…… I thought NGC has best photographers but why can’t they identify this photo is a fake..

  23. Terry Stiles
    Kenora, Ontario Canada
    November 19, 2013, 7:39 am

    @ Ginger Snap……Is that really the most important question??? It’s curiosity like this that can be blamed for the endangerment of numerous species of animals and birds here on earth. Now if you were to ask what they ate, I could understand but wondering what they taste like??? Can’t you do better than that on a great site such as this??? What an utterly stupid question!!!

  24. Santiago Toro
    Puerto Rico
    November 19, 2013, 7:38 am

    Wonder how long will it take before its hunted down to make Saola tail soup. Great discovery but I no longer have faith in our ability to coexist with other species.

  25. Bill
    November 19, 2013, 7:04 am

    I don’t understand why you say it is difficult to find. It is on the menu at the corner restaurant all the time.

  26. Roberta Handboy
    November 19, 2013, 5:01 am

    Why is this creature so elusive?!

  27. neha tyagi
    November 19, 2013, 4:50 am

    Awesome !!!

  28. Jay Lederman
    November 19, 2013, 4:01 am

    Article says 1999, photo caption says 1996. Fix your photo caption, fire your editor and hire me. Thanks.

  29. Sy Yin
    November 19, 2013, 3:54 am

    Altough it’s rare but you an still find it in Cambodia in the wild. But too bad, many people are hunting them for those rich people, each could cost about nearly $2000USD. They believe it could cure illness. They are under wildlife protection but still some villagers could sometimes catch and sell them.

  30. Scarlet Blaire
    November 19, 2013, 3:45 am

    THIS IS JUST ASDGHJKRWSFR awesome. Seriously. Maybe if we continue to care for its habitat


    and then we’ll have unicorns

  31. Graham Ford
    Hong Kong
    November 19, 2013, 3:41 am

    “The Vietnamese government has created nature preserves in the saola’s range, and banned all hunting in the mammal’s habitat in an effort to protect the animal.” … for THEIR critically endangered species. How about banning Rhino horn in Vietnam, to protect Africa’s endangered unicorn?

  32. Fermina Racpan
    Sacramento, CA
    November 19, 2013, 3:38 am


  33. Ibrahim Mwangi
    Nairobi, Kenya
    November 18, 2013, 11:14 pm

    This is great! Steps should now be taken to ensure that it is protected from humans and their greed!

    November 18, 2013, 2:33 pm

    That is much great achievement, and if only that mammal is available and rare then initiative should be taken to protect from extinct due to mankind greed.

  35. Ginger Snap
    November 16, 2013, 9:45 am

    The most important question to ask of course is “what does it taste like?”

  36. Tom
    November 15, 2013, 7:55 am

    As rare creatures go the saola is almost common. I own a very rare species of three legged dog with an extra leg and in various fields around this part of the country there are a few wingless pegasi, usually grazing. One of the most common rare creatures in existence here is a quite specialized centaur with the upper half the torso of a human and the lower half the lower half of a …..human.

  37. Ragoo Rao
    Mysore, India
    November 14, 2013, 9:58 pm

    A Very Interesting find. Technology has helped in the situation. Kudos the Explorers.