Scientists ramp up their search for one of the world's rarest animals in an effort to save it from extinction
Scientists are ramping up their search for the elusive 'Asian unicorn', one of the world's rarest animals, in an effort to save it from extinction.
Asian unicorn, also called the saola, is native to the mountains of Vietnam and Laos, but it's 'critically endangered' according to the IUCN Red List.
With its long horns and white facial markings, the saola resembles the antelopes of North Africa, but it's more closely related to wild cattle.
The saola was discovered as a species new to science only in 1992, in Vietnam's Vu Quang Nature Reserve, near the border with Laos, based on the animal's remains.
But no biologist has ever reported seeing one in the wild, and it was most recently observed in the wild nine years ago only thanks to secret cameras hidden in trees.
Now, experts at the Wisconsin-based non-profit Saola Foundation are planning new efforts to find the creature, by training dogs to detect saola traces.
Saola (pronounced 'sow-la') are recognised by two parallel horns with sharp ends, which can reach 20 inches in length and are found on both males and females, according to the WWF.
Saola also have striking white markings on the face and large maxillary glands on the muzzle, which could be used to mark territory or attract mates. They are found only in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos.
The species (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is regarded as one of the most threatened mammals in Southeast Asia, says Edge of Existence.
As part of the Saola Foundation's new initiative, any samples found in the wild suspected to be from saola, such as fur or dung, would be studied onsite DNA test kits.
If the kits return a positive result within an hour, experts would start searching for saola in the forest near to the location of the sample.
If they found any saolas, the creatures would be captured and taken to a breeding centre being developed with help from the Vietnamese government at Bạch Mã national park in central Vietnam.
Based on expert opinion and threat assessments, the IUCN thinks there are fewer than 100 individual saolas in existence. Saola Foundation puts this number at potentially under 50.
There are no saolas in zoos and almost nothing is known about how to keep them in captivity, so if the species dies out in the wild it will be extinct.
Saolas are so secretive and so seldom seen that they have been likened to unicorns, despite actually having two horns, as opposed to the mythical unicorn's one horn.
The species was discovered in north-central Vietnam in May 1992 when a joint team of WWF and Vietnam's forest control agency found a skull with with unusually long, straight horns in a hunter's home.
On four follow-up visits, new remains were discovered, including the animal's skin and more bones. In all, researchers examined more than 20 specimens.
In 2013, a saola was photographed by a strategically-placed camera trap hidden in tree foliage in Vietnam's central Annamite mountains.