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The saola, Vu Quang ox or Asian unicorn, also, infrequently, Vu Quang bovid (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), one of the world's rarest mammals, is a forest-dwelling bovine found only in the Annamite Range of Vietnam and Laos. The species was defined following a discovery of remains in 1992 in Vu Quang Nature Reserve by a joint survey of the Ministry of Forestry and the World Wide Fund for Nature. The team found three skulls with unusual long straight horns kept in hunters' houses. In their article, the team proposed "a three month survey to observe the living animal" but, more than 20 years later, there is still no reported sighting of a saola in the wild by a scientist.
In late August 2010, a saola was captured by villagers in Laos but died in captivity before government conservationists could arrange for it to be released back into the wild. The carcass is being studied with the hope that it will advance scientific understanding of the saola. Sometimes these animals get caught in snares that have been set to catch animals such as wild boar, sambar and muntjac deer that come to feed on the crops that the farmers have planted. This has become a problem especially with the illegal fur trade for medicines, restaurants and food markets. There have been a more than 26,651 snares that have been removed from habitats that the Saola has lived in for years.
Habitat and distribution
The Saola inhabits the Annamite Range's moist forests and the Eastern Indochina dry and monsoon forests. They have been spotted in steep river valleys at about 300 to 1800 m above sea level. These regions are distant from human settlements, covered primarily in evergreen or mixed evergreen and deciduous woodlands. The species seems to prefer edge zones of the forests.
Saola stay in mountain forests during the wet seasons, when water in streams and rivers is abundant, and move down to the lowlands in winter. They are shy and never enter cultivated fields or come close to villages. To date, all known captive saola have died, leading to the belief that this species cannot live in captivity.
The saola belongs to the family Bovidae and genetic analysis places it in the tribe Bovini; in other words its closest relatives are cattle, true buffaloes, and bison. However its simple horns and teeth and some other morphological features are typical of less-derived or 'primitive' bovids. Saola are antelopes, in the sense that an antelope is any bovid that is not a cow, sheep, buffalo, bison, or goat. It is not known how many individuals exist, as only 11 have been recorded alive.
The saola stands about 85 cm at the shoulder and weighs approximately 90 kg. The coat is a dark brown with a black stripe along the back. Its legs are darkish and there are white patches on the feet, and white stripes vertically across the cheeks, on the eyebrows and splotches on the nose and chin. All saolas have slightly backward-curved horns, which grow to half a meter in length. The skin is 1-2 mm thick over most of the body, but the skin thickens once you get the nape of the neck, and the upper shoulders and it goes to 5mm in thickness, this a very unique adaptation that they have for protection of predators and the rivals horn during a fight.
Local populations report having seen saola traveling in groups of two or three, rarely more.
Saola mark their territories by opening up a fleshy flap on their snout to reveal scent glands. They subsequently rub the underside against objects leaving a musky, pungent paste. The saolas' colossal scent glands are thought to be the largest of any living mammal.
The name "saola" has been translated as spindle[-horned] although the precise meaning is actually 'spinning-wheel post horn'. The name comes from a Tai language of Vietnam but the meaning is the same in the Lao language. The specific name nghetinhensis refers to the two Vietnamese provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh while Pseudoryx acknowledges the animal's similarities with the Arabian or African oryx. Hmong people in Lao refer to this beast as saht-supahp, a term derived from Lao meaning "the polite animal", because it moves quietly through the forest. Other names used by minority groups in the Saola's range are 'lagiang' (Van Kieu), 'a ngao' (Ta Oi) and 'xoong xor' (Katu)  In the press, Saola have been referred to as Asian unicorns. The appellation is apparently due to the saola's rarity and apparently gentle nature and perhaps because both the saola and the oryx have been linked with the unicorn. There is no known link with the mythical beast; nor with the 'Chinese unicorn', the qilin.
The Saola Working Group was formed by the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group, in 2006 to protect the saolas (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) and their habitat. The Saola Working Group is a coalition that includes about 40 experts from the forestry departments of Laos and Vietnam, Vietnam's Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, Vinh University, biologists and conservationists from Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund.
Other rarely seen big mammals of the Indochina peninsula, also discovered in the 1990s:
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- Tham Ngoc Diep, Dang Thang Long and Do Tuoc, Report on Survey of Saola Pseudoryx nghetinhensis Appendix 3 in Rediscovering the Saola Workshop proceedings, Hanoi 2004]
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- Timmins et al. (2008). Pseudoryx nghetinhensis. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 11 May 2006. Database entry includes a range map and justification for why this species is critically endangered