There’s a mysterious creature lurking in the misty mountains of Southeast Asia. It has the body of a large deer, the horns of an antelope and the ability to turn invisible.
Okay, the animal known as the saola (pronounced SOW-la) can’t really turn invisible, but sometimes it feels that way to people trying to protect saolas. Scientists didn’t even know saolas existed until 1992, even though the animals are quite big and can weigh up to 200 pounds!
“It may be the largest animal in the world that’s never been seen in the wild by a biologist,” said Bill Robichaud, a scientist who works to save animals from extinction with an organization known as Global Wildlife Conservation, or GWC for short.
“This is how the saola got the nickname ‘Asian unicorn,’ because it’s an animal you can’t see and can’t find,” he said.
As far as anyone knows, there are fewer than 100 saolas left on Earth, and all of them live in pockets of dense rain
forest in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos. When it comes to large animals, only the Sumatran rhino and a porpoise known as the vaquita may be more endangered, Robichaud said.
Right now, what’s doing the most to drive these animals toward extinction is the use of snares.
Snares are tiny loops of wire that draw closed on an animal’s foot when it steps inside. In that part of the world, hunters use snares to catch a wide range of animals, which they either eat themselves or, more often, sell to restaurants.
Interestingly, the hunters aren’t actually trying to catch saolas. They set their traps hoping to snare several kinds of deer, such as chevrotain, sambar and muntjac, wild pigs or bamboo rats.
Eating these foods is seen as a status symbol in those countries, said Barney Long, another GWC scientist working to save the saola.
In other words, the flesh of wild animals, or “bush meat,” is kind of like steak and lobster in the United States — foods that are expensive and saved for special occasions.
But even if the hunters aren’t aiming for saolas, the critically endangered animals still get caught in their snares. This is why the first step toward saving these animals is to crack down on the use of snares in areas where saolas are known to exist.
However, if poaching were to stop overnight, Robichaud said, the saola might still go extinct soon. That’s because there are now so few left, they probably cannot find one another to breed.
To deal with that problem, scientists say they need to start capturing saolas and breeding them in captivity. Of course, we’ll have to find them first.
Right now, teams are working to set up as many camera traps as possible to help locate the world’s remaining saolas so they can begin trying to catch them — carefully. Scientists are also talking with local hunters to see if they can tip them off to locations where saolas can still be found. Believe it or not, there’s even a plan that involves using leeches.
“So in this area, if you walk around the forest, every few minutes you’ll be bitten by a leech, which will try and suck your blood,” Long said.
Saolas get bitten by leeches, too, so the idea is that if scientists collect enough of the tiny bloodsuckers and analyze the blood in their bellies, they might find clues to where saolas are hiding.
“It’s looking for a needle in a haystack, and it’s a very, very rare needle,” Long said.
Scientific Name: Pseudoryx nghetinhensis
Where They Live: Vietnam and Laos in Southeast Asia
Size: Up to 200 pounds
How Many Are Left: Probably fewer than 100
Status: Critically endangered
Fun fact: The name saola in the Lao language means “spinning wheel posts.” The animal’s horns are similar in size and shape to posts on spinning wheels Laotians use.