ScienceShot: 'Asian Unicorn' Turns Up First Time This Century

Rich oversees Science's international coverage.

A last-gasp attempt to save the “Panda of Indochina” may be paying dividends. For the first time since 1999, a saola has been spotted in the wild. In September, a camera trap in Vietnam’s Annamite Mountains snapped photos of a beast so elusive that some call it the “Asian unicorn” (pictured); WWF and Vietnam’s Forest Protection Department, which set up the camera, released the photos yesterday. “These are the most important wild animal photographs taken in Asia, and perhaps the world, in at least the past decade,” said zoologist William Robichaud, coordinator of the Saola Working Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission. Similar in appearance to an antelope, the saola was the first large mammal discovered in half a century when it was described in 1992 based on pairs of tapering horns hanging in Annamite village homes. Scientists say that snares set by illegal hunters to catch civets and deer have helped decimate the critically endangered ungulate, which has dwindled to a few hundred individuals at most. Over the past few years, Vietnamese villagers serving as volunteer forest guards have removed more than 30,000 snares from critical saola habitat, according to Van Ngoc Thinh, WWF-Vietnam’s country director. Espying the shy creature in the wild, Van Ngoc said, “renews hope for the recovery of the species.”

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Posted in Asia/Pacific, Plants & Animals