'Asian unicorn' so elusive it may be gone
Experts fear saola is on verge of extinction
The saola, a rare type of antelope found in the border region between Vietnam and Laos, is notoriously difficult to pin down.
One could be forgiven for chocking up that fact solely to its nickname, the "Asian unicorn."
It turns out that this fairy tale may not have a purely magical ending, however.
Creative monikers aside, poaching appears to be the main reason saolas are so hard to spot. Just 20 years after the species was discovered (that's how elusive they are), wildlife experts say the saola population may be facing extinction.
According to the Guardian:
Estimates of the current saola population range from 10 to several hundred. A 2009 meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) concluded that the species population has dropped precipitously, and the saola remains on its list of critically endangered species.
The saddest part is that the saola isn't really prized by poachers. It's caught, according to news reports, mainly by mistake when hunters go looking for its more edible neighbors and friends.
"Saola are caught largely as bycatch — like the tuna and dolphin scenario," William Robichaud, coordinator of the Saola Working Group, said in a statement, according to LiveScience.com.
WWF Asian species expert Barney Long said that poaching in the area has escalated along with the growth of Vietnam's middle class. More people with more money in their pockets means higher demand for exotic cuisine and the like. Hence, the spike in poaching.
"Poachers go in and set 1,000 snares at a time. It's high-intensity poaching which requires an appropriate response form anti-poaching teams," Long told The Guardian.
In May 1992, the species initially surfaced when mysterious skulls were found in a Vietnamese forest reserve, according to nature.com.
The antelope hybrid (which is actually more closely related to a wild cow) sports two straight, parallel horns on its forehead, which do conjure up images of the magical unicorn. Though the animal apparently did get its nickname due to the fact that seeing it alive is so rare as to be compared to the fictional experience of seeing a unicorn.
Scientists have never observed a saola alive in the wild, according to media. Actually, no one had reported seeing any in a decade until one was captured by villagers in Bolikhamxay province, Laos, in 2010. It died shortly after being caught, however, before researchers could reach the village.
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.