"Asian Unicorn' sighted in Vietnam after 15 years

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A saola caught by a camera trap at the saola nature reserve in central Truong Son (Annamite) Mountains. PHOTO: WWF

The saola, a rare mammal that was first discovered near Vietnam's border with Laos 21 years ago, has been photographed in Vietnam for the first time in 15 years.

The enigmatic species was caught on film last September by a camera trap set by the WWF and Quang Nam Province's Forest Protection Department at the saola nature reserve in central Truong Son (Annamite) Mountains, WWF said in a release November 13.

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"When our team first looked at the photos we couldn't believe our eyes," said Van Ngoc Thinh, WWF Vietnam's country director.

"Saola is the holy grail for Southeast Asian conservationists so there was a lot of excitement.

"This is a breath-taking discovery and renews hope for the recovery of the species."

In the area where the saola was photographed, WWF's Preservation of Carbon Sinks and Biodiversity Conservation (CarBi) Program has implemented an innovative law enforcement initiative in which forest rangers are recruited from local communities, and co-managed by WWF and the saola reserve's management board, to remove snares and tackle illegal hunting, the greatest threat to the saola's survival.

Saola get caught in wire snares set by hunters to catch other animals, such as deer and civets, which are largely destined for the lucrative illegal wildlife trade, according to WWF.

Since 2011, forest rangers in the CarBi area have removed more than 30,000 snares from the saola habitat and destroyed more than 600 illegal hunters' camps.

William Robichaud, Coordinator of the Saola Working Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, said more support is needed so that WWF and other partners can scale up the initiative to additional parts of the saola's range in Vietnam and Laos.

A cousin of cattle, but recalling an antelope in appearance, the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) was discovered in 1992 at the Vu Quang Nature Reserve near Vietnam's border with Laos by a joint survey team of what was then Vietnam's Ministry of Forestry and the WWF.

The team found a skull with unusually long, straight horns in a hunter's home and knew it was something extraordinary. It turned out be one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.

Around 20 years on, little is known about the saola, and the difficulty in detecting the elusive animal has prevented scientists from making a precise population estimate.  

In 2010, villagers in the central Lao province of Bolikhamsai captured one of the animals, but it died several days later. Earlier, the last confirmed record of a sao la in the wild was in 1999 through camera-trap photos in Bolikhamsai.

In Vietnam, the last sighting of a saola in the wild was in 1998.

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