'Asian Unicorn' faces extinction

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The saola, a rare mammal that was first discovered near Vietnam's border with Laos 20 years ago, is sliding towards extinction due to intensive hunting and poor reserve management, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said Monday.

Scientists from the WWF say that the animal, also known as the Vu Quang ox or the Asian unicorn, is often caught in wire snares that hunters set to catch other animals like sambar deer and civets which are targeted by the demand of traditional medicine in China and food markets in Vietnam and Laos.

"Saola are caught largely as bycatch like the tuna and dolphin scenario," William Robichaud, Coordinator of the Saola Working Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, was quoted as saying.

The creature's forest habitat is also being encroached upon by human development, the article said.

It said Vietnam and Laos have established a network of protected areas in the saola's core range and some reserves are pursuing innovative approaches to tackle rampant poaching. 

"However, without increasing efforts to adopt new approaches to manage the protection of saola habitat through targeted snare removal, these protected areas will be little more than lines drawn on a map," said Dr. Barney Long, Asian species expert for WWF-US.

Meanwhile, Chris Hallam, WCS-Laos' Conservation Planning Advisor, called for additional funding to step up patrols in the saola's habitat, develop positive incentives for its conservation and reduce consumer demand for wildlife meat and products.

"The saola has made it to its 20th anniversary, but it won't have many more anniversaries unless urgent action is taken," Hallam said.

A cousin of the domestic cow but recalling an antelope in appearance, the animal was first discovered in 1992 by a joint team from Vietnam's Ministry of Forestry (now a part of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development) and the WWF during a surveying trip into the forests of Vu Quang.

The team found a skull with unusual long, straight horns in a hunter's home.

They later proved that the skull belonged to the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years and one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.

However, since then scientists have had few opportunities to study the saola's ecology or behavior, because it is "extremely secretive and very seldom seen," the report said.

In 2010, villagers in the central Laos province of Bolikhamxay captured a saola, but the animal died several days later. Prior to that, the last confirmed record of a saola in the wild came from camera-trap photos taken in Bolikhamxay in 1999.

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