The elusive forest-dwelling saola
- otherwise known as the "Asian unicorn" - is in danger of becoming extinct a mere 20 years after its discovery. According to Yahoo News
, the bovine saola's numbers have dwindled to only 200 on the high end; on the low end, there may be as few as just a few dozen left.
Saola - also known as the Vu Quang ox - are only found in the Annamese Mountains
, which lie on the border of Vietnam and Laos. With their horns and dark brown fur, they resemble
a "strange antelope hybrid" in appearance, but are genetically more so related to "a type of wild cow."
The saola were first discovered in May 1992 when Vietnamese scientists found villagers collecting alien-looking horned skulls by the animal's native range.
"It's a very beautiful forest ungulate, and really looks like nothing else in Asia," said Barney Long of the World Wildlife Fund to Our Amazing Planet
last month. "It's so rare to see that it would almost be like seeing a unicorn."
The peril that is facing these majestic creatures is none other than the rampant poaching being conducted in the Annamite Range. What's more, is that saola themselves are not targeted, but instead are caught in the the crossfire of their neighbors being hunted.
"Saola are caught largely as bycatch — like the tuna and dolphin scenario," said coordinator of the Saola Working Group, William Robichaud, in a statement
Another unfortunate aspect in all of this is that scientists have never observed saola in their natural habitat, and those brought into captivity died shortly after they were caught.
"When they're in captivity, they seem to act extremely tame, and they're very open to having people come up to them and touch them," said Long
, pointing out that their warm-hearted facades were actually indicative of terrible stress. "The animal is freaking out."
However, since it is not eyed directly by poachers, scientists and conservationists remain hopeful that the saola can be rescued; even in a time of uncertainty regarding its future.
"But we still need to act," said Robichaud
. "One of the rarest and most distinctive large animals in the world has been quietly slipping toward extinction through complacency."