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Saola: A Critically Endangered Species

Livingsta is a writer who focuses on anything that fascinates, provokes or interests her. She always puts forth her best efforts and focus.

Saola – © WWF-Canon / David HULSE

Saola – © WWF-Canon / David HULSE

About the Saola

The saola is one of the most critically endangered species in the world and is on the IUCN red list. Often called the "Asian Unicorn," it is a very rare and distinct species that was discovered in May of 1992. We will look into the details of how the saola was discovered, its habitat and food, the characteristics and behavior, the reproduction process, the main threats and the reason why the saola are endangered, the conservation efforts taken to protect them, some interesting facts and what can be done to help protect them.



During a joint survey that was carried out in North Central Vietnam by the WWF and the Ministry of Forestry of Vietnam in 1992, they found remains of the saolas in the Vu Quang Nature reserve. Three skulls were found kept in hunters' homes that had long straight horns and looked very unusual.

The team proposed to conduct a three-month survey to observe this animal but had no luck. Scientists and biologists have still not spotted a saola in the wild. Information gathered about these species is mostly from studies conducted on dead saolas or remains of saolas or through tales heard from villagers. Very few saolas that were alive and in captivity (around 13 saolas) have been studied or researched, to gather some information about them.

A saola that was captured by the villagers in Laos in August 2010 died even before the conservationists could release it safely into the wild. Studies were conducted on its carcass to learn more about the animal.



Scientific Classification (Taxonomy):

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Cetartiodactyla

Suborder: Ruminantia

Family: Bovidae

Subfamily: Bovinae

Tribe: Pseudorygini

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Genus: Pseudoryx

Species: nghetinhensis

"Saola" means "spindle horned" in the Tai (language in Vietnam) and Lao languages.

Abbreviations and Explanation of Terms Used:


  • WWFWorld Wildlife Fund
  • IUCNInternational Union for Conservation of Nature
  • WCSWildlife Conservation Society
  • NBCANational Biodiversity Conservation Area
  • SWGSaola Working Group
  • EDGEEvolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered
  • FSCForest Stewardship Council
  • CITESConvention of International Trade in Endangered Species


  • Maxillary – of or relating to the upper jaw
  • Unicorn – an imaginary creature represented as a white horse with a long horn growing from its forehead
  • Traffic – wildlife trade monitoring network

Characteristics and Behavior

  • The saola has two long smooth black horns that are parallel and slightly curved backwards. The horns are long and sharp (round in cross-section) and grow up to a length of 35 to 50 cm. Both the males and females have horns.
  • Their furry coat of is dark brown with black stripe running along the back that ends at the tail. The hair is fine and glossy. Their legs are dark with two white patches above the hooves.
  • Their tail has three different colors (Brown on top, cream in the middle and black at the end) and ends in a fluffy tassel.
  • They have white patches / markings on their face in the cheek area, in the chin and lips, and also above the eyes.
  • The thickness of the skin is between 1 to 2 mm over most areas of its body and is 5 mm thick at the back side of the neck and upper shoulders. This is a unique adaptation to protect themselves from the predators and while fighting.
  • They have large maxillary glands in their cheeks. They open a fleshy flap on their nose to expose the scent glands and rub the under surface against objects, leaving a musky and pungent paste. This could be used to attract mates or to mark their territories.
  • The saola grows up to a height of 85 cm (shoulder height) and weighs around 80 to 100 kg. Their head and body length can be around 150 cm and tail length around 25 cm
  • They are very shy animals and stay away from human habitat. They are usually solitary and have sometimes been seen in groups of two (male and female or mother and offspring) or three and very rarely more than three.
  • They are active in the mornings and afternoons and the only sound they produce is a soft, short bleat.
  • Tiger, leopards, crocodiles and dholes (Fierce wild dog of the forests of central and southeast Asia that hunts in packs) could be their predators.
Greater Annamites Ecoregion

Greater Annamites Ecoregion

Habitat and Food

  • The only habitat of the saolas is the Annamite range of mountains of Vietnam and Laos that have moist forests and the Eastern Indochina dry and monsoon forests.
  • There are estimates of patchy populations from Ca River in the north of Vietnam to Quang Nam province in the south of Vietnam. They have been spotted in Southern parts of Nakai-Nam Theun which is NBCA in Lao. They are also reported to have been spotted in Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Hue and Quang Nam in Vietnam and Sekong in Lao.
  • The actual number of saolas found in the wild is not known. There is none in captivity. The population could be a few tens to a few hundreds while only 11 saolas that are alive have been recorded. IUCN estimates the total saola population to be much less than 750. It could even be a few dozens!
  • They have also been seen in river valleys at a height of 300 to 1,800 m. These valleys have either evergreen forests or evergreen and woodland forests and also indicates the fact that these species like to live around the edges of forests.
  • During rainy seasons, the saolas stay in mountain forests where there are plenty of water in rivers and streams and move to the low lying areas during winter.
  • They are herbivores and eat small plants including fig leaves, stems, bushes along the riverbanks. They are browsers and their main food is leaves.


  • They give birth between the months of April and June. This shows that they have a fixed breeding season which could be between the end of August till mid-November..
  • The pregnancy period is estimated to be around eight months. They are estimated to give birth to one young one at a time.
  • Details about maturity and the period for which the young one is looked after by the mother are unknown.
  • They are estimated to live for eight to eleven years.

Main Threats and Reasons They're Endangered

  • Hunting is a major threat to these animals. They are hunted for their meat and for their horns as trophies.
  • Illegal wildlife trade for traditional medicines, fur, meat are the reasons why wildlife is hunted.
  • They also get caught in snares that are set by the villagers for other wild animals like the sambar deer, muntjac deer, barking deer, wild boar, etc. , in order to protect their crops.
  • Another reason for the loss of these species is loss in habitat. Humans destroy the forests where saolas live and use them for agriculture and other infrastructures. This either fragments the saola population or reduces the size of their habitat. Fragmentation will also decrease genetic diversity and create issues like inbreeding.
  • Decrease in the size of habitat also makes the saolas more vulnerable in the sense that they are in easy access to the hunters.

Conservation Efforts

  • WWF is working towards protecting the saolas by establishing protected areas and by strengthening the laws.
Saola Working Group (SWG)

Saola Working Group (SWG)

  • WWF is working with the communities to get them to help with protecting and conserving the saolas.
  • WWF has taken on projects to improve managements in the Vu Quang Nature Reserve and has also established two new nature reserves for the saolas in Thua-Thien Hue and Quang Nam provinces.
  • WWF also conducts surveys and research on these animals, of which very little information is available at the moment.
  • More than 26,651 snares have been removed between February 2011 and November 2012 from the saola habitat with the help of privately funded and trained forest guards who were hired from local communities. WWF, WCS, SWG and other organizations were involved in this project
  • IUCN formed the SWG in 2006 to help protect the saolas and their habitat. This group comprises of the biologists and conservationists from WWF, WCS, around 40 experts from the forestry departments of Laos and Vietnam, Vietnam Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources and Vinh University.
  • WWF has also set camera traps to monitor saolas and to conduct studies and research.
  • WWF produced and telecast a documentary on the plight of the saolos in the Vietnamese television to create awareness among the community
  • Ministry of Forestry in Vietnam has cancelled its logging operations and has also issued a ban on capturing this animal for any purpose.
  • EDGE also has plans to support conserving the saolas through raising awareness, research and protecting them.


  • Saola has been documented in the wild only four times in these 20 years.
  • They are the first large mammal that was newly discovered in the past 50 years and one of the rarest mammals in the world.
  • The other names for saola are Vu Quang ox, Vu Quand bovid, Sao La, Vu Quang – Wildrindes, Sun Duong (meaning mountain goat), Yang (in Lao community) or Asian Unicorn.

Note: I am clarifying the word “unicorn” here. It is referred to as "Asian unicorn", not because it looks like a unicorn, but because it is rare and cannot be sighted, just like how we cannot sight a unicorn.

  • All saolas in captivity have died, which leads to an assumption that this species cannot survive in captivity.
  • The scent glands of the saola are the largest of any living mammals
  • The white markings on the saola’s face represents a symbol for biodiversity.
  • They are very different from any known species and hence a different genus was constructed for it.
  • They are afraid of dogs and when they encounter one, their glands swell and they snort.
  • It is believed that these species may have lived at elevations below 400 m that are currently densely populated by people.
  • All of the thirteen saolas that were in captivity, died within days or weeks and none of them survived for more than five months.

What Can You Do to Help?

  • You can help by spreading the information about the saolas to everyone.
  • You can donate to the SWG thereby helping with snare collection (thousands of snares have been removed by this group).
  • You can also donate to WWF to help with protection and conservation programs for the saolas.
  • Please do not buy wildlife products that are sold illegally.
  • You can stop wearing coats made from the fur of wild animals and start using synthetics.
  • Please buy only those forest products that are FSC certified.

I hope you enjoyed reading about this rare species that are hard to sight in the wild. These animals are under a serious threat towards extinction, and we need to do the best we can to help save them from extinction.

Let us help save the saolas and our planet. There are so many other critically endangered, endangered and threatened species all over the planet in various habitat/ecosystem. We have also lost so many other species due to the destruction caused by humans, apart from natural catastrophes.

We need to work together to stop all these destructive activities and educate our children and the younger generation about the importance of conserving and protecting our environment.

Sources and Further Reading


Oninon on November 01, 2019:

Cutenesses should live on

Elzbeth on May 16, 2019:

doing school project and cannot find any adaptations except for skin thickness.

arliss on June 21, 2018:

this info is to bad

abbie on January 30, 2018:

doing a school research project & can't figure out when they were put on the endangered list. any ideas??

Kaytie on September 18, 2017:

I have never seen or heard about it until now and I am just doing researh

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 21, 2014:

Hello Vellur,

Thank you for stopping by. Yes, hopefully these animals and others can be saved from extinction. Have a lovely weekend.

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 21, 2014:

Hello Jodah,

Thank you for stopping by and the vote. I am also hoping that these beautiful animals can be saved from extinction :)

Have a good weekend.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on May 24, 2014:

Great hub about the endangered Saolas. I hope they do not become extinct. Hunting can really wipe out animals from earth and a cruel sport too.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on May 23, 2014:

I had heard about the saola, but had no idea they had only been discovered so recently and were so rare. I hope the small number still surviving can be protected and do not become extinct like so many other beautiful creatures. This may prove difficult if they can't be kept alive in captivity. Hopefully all poaching and trapping can be stopped. Voted up.

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on October 07, 2013:

Hi Deb, thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and feelings on these beautiful animals. Let's hope for the best :-)

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on October 07, 2013:

I truly hope that these beautiful and cherished animals will have a second chance. It appears that they were pushed from their natural homes, and forced to survive elsewhere, which didn't help the survival rate. A great piece!

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on September 19, 2013:

Hi thumbi7, thank you for stopping by. It is sad indeed. I am glad that you found this interesting. :-)

JR Krishna from India on September 19, 2013:

It was very interesting to read this article.

I have never heard about this animal. So sad to hear that they come under critically endangered.

Beautiful animals.

Thanks for sharing this hub

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on July 15, 2013:

Hi pstraubie48, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts on this hub. I do agree with you. There are serious conservation efforts being undertaken and I too hope that we can save these beautiful animals from extinction. Thank you for stopping by.

Sending you Hugs and blessings :-)

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 15, 2013:


Thank you so much for sharing in detail this unusual creature. It would be so tragic if they were to become extinct.

I hope that the efforts that are under way prevent that from happening to this amazing creature.

Angels are on the way to you this evening ps :)

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on July 15, 2013:

Hi FlourishAnyway, thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. I am pleased that you found this helpful. Have a great week ahead :-)

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 05, 2013:

Very impressively researched and well written hub. I had never heard of this beautiful endangered animal. So sad that we are doing this to our fellow creatures. It's good that you provide some options for how to help.

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 21, 2013:

Hi Vinaya, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. Yes, we all need to try what best we can do to save the species and our planet. Have a great weekend! :-)

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 21, 2013:

Hi Rose, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts and concerns. I am glad that you found this information useful and interesting. Thank you for the vote. Have a great weekend! :-)

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 21, 2013:

Hi Cris, thank you for reading. I am glad that you found this information useful and I am so happy to hear that you support the WWF.

Thank you for the votes and share. Have a great weekend! :-)

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on June 21, 2013:

Your research on Saola is very detailed. There are many critically endangered species and if we don't act now, they may vanish from earth. Thanks for this activism.

rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on June 20, 2013:

Wow....this is fascinating! What a shame that such a recently discovered, beautiful species like the saola is endangered. This was a very thorough and interesting article. I totally lobed your images. Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

CrisSp from Sky Is The Limit Adventure on June 20, 2013:

Very interesting! I've never heard of this animal. So, thank you for sharing and for the education. I support WWF here for the love of all these wonderful creatures.

Beautiful, up and sharing.

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 20, 2013:

Hi Suhail, I am in all smiles after reading your comment. I am so pleased to hear that you donate to WWF and that you are a conservationist. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts and experience. Maybe since the Saola was discovered only recently, their low population and the difficulty in sighting them, less information available, have all add up to them not being known to many people. Interesting about the Kakapos, I will look them up, thank you.

Thank you again and you have a good day :-)

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 20, 2013:

Hi Rajan, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. Thank you for the votes too. Have a good day!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on June 19, 2013:

Thank you for sharing about an animal that even a person like me, who is a wildlife lover and a conservationist, hasn't heard or read about. This reminds me of the New Zealand's Kakapos. there are only 81 of them as of now under a closely supervised captivity and breeding program.

Since I donate to WWF on a regular basis, I will have some funds earmarked for Saola prevention too.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on June 19, 2013:

I haven't even heard of the Saola. It is a beautiful animal. We do need to make all out efforts to preserve such endangered species.

Thanks for the information. Voted up, useful and interesting.

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 19, 2013:

Hi Travel_man1971, thank you for reading. I am glad that you found this interesting. Have a great rest of the week!

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 19, 2013:

Hi Debbie, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. They do look like the deer with their antlers that way, don't they? Thank you for sharing this hub.

Have a good day. Sending you blessings!

Ireno Alcala from Bicol, Philippines on June 18, 2013:

A firsthand information coming from you. Wow! It's really a living testimony that unicorns do exist!

Deborah Brooks Langford from Brownsville,TX on June 18, 2013:

Oh I hope they can save the Saola.. what a beautiful animal remind me of the deer.. thank you fir sharing about this beautiful animal




livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 15, 2013:

Hi Alocsin, thank you for reading. It indeed is a beautiful animal. I was so surprised too, to read about this animal and was saddened to read about the plight of these animals. I am pleased that you found this interesting. Thank you for your votes. Have a good weekend :-)

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on June 14, 2013:

What a beautiful animal -- I've never even heard of it, let alone seen it on Discovery Channel or in zoos. Voting this Up and Interesting.

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 10, 2013:

Hi Imogen French, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. I am glad that you found this information useful.

Hopefully, with serious efforts and help from everyone, we will be able to save all the threatened and endangered species.

Have a great week :-)

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 10, 2013:

Hi midget38, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. Have a great week ahead! :-)

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 10, 2013:

Hi Tony,

Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts and feelings on this issue. As you say, unless we take serious steps to protect and conserve our environment, we will be losing everything in the world around us.

I am pleased that you found this information interesting.

Have a great week ahead :-)

Imogen French from Southwest England on June 10, 2013:

I hadn't heard of the saola before, either. Such a beautiful creature - it is an absolute tragedy that they are so threatened.

You have done a great job here in raising its profile, Livingsta, in a very well written, nicely illustrated and informative article.

I truly hope that the conservationists have some success in saving those that are left.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on June 09, 2013:

Another beautiful creature man takes for granted. Thanks for sharing, Livingsta.

Tony Mead from Yorkshire on June 09, 2013:

I do follow the plight of wildlife, but I have to admit that I knew nothing of this creature. I dispair these days because soon there will not be any natural habitat left anywhere on the planet. Unless the humans start controlling their numbers everything else will be lost and then where will we be.

Thank you for this interesting article, let us hope that something can be done soon for these creatures. Don't tell the chinese nedcine people that they are rare, or they will be slaughtering them for their big toe or horn to put in some useless medicine.



livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 07, 2013:

Hi azrestoexp, thank you for stopping by! So true and I agree with you. I am glad that you found this useful! Thank you for the votes. Have a good weekend!

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 07, 2013:

Hi kidscrafts, yes, they do look beautiful! I was quite fascinated too, that they were discovered recently and that sighting them has been so difficult.

I am so pleased that you found this information interesting! Thank you for the votes.

Have a wonderful weekend!

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 07, 2013:

Thank you Martin! Glad that you liked :-)

Arizona's Restoration Experts, LLC on June 07, 2013:

Well said billybuc . . . it is very sad!!! So much beauty in the world but it seems to be slipping away day by day. What part of once it's gone, it's gone don't we understand?!!!

Great hub, keep writing. Voted up

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on June 07, 2013:

I have never heard of the saola before. Very interesting hub, Livingsta.

They are beaufiful creatures; what a very nice marking!

How strange that they have been discover so recently. And as for many other species, it's so sad that they are endangered. I think we really need international laws for protecting the environment and all those different species.

As usual, you cover so many aspects! Great pictures and videos!

Thanks for sharing!

Voted up, interesting and awesome!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on June 07, 2013:

Thank you for your hard and excellent work on this.

livingsta (author) from United Kingdom on June 06, 2013:

Hi Bill, extinction of this elusive animal is sad to even think about! Thank you for your support as always :-)

Hugs and blessings to you!

Have a good day!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 06, 2013:

What a beautiful animal and sadly I have never heard of it, and based on this information we as a society may never see it again. So sad! Thank you for once again raising awareness.

Blessings and a hug coming your way


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