Super Rare Asian "Unicorn" Captured, Dies in Captivity
As far as endangered species go, it's mostly bad news, with the occasional positive story. Well this news seems to fall somewhere in the middle: in late August, a group of Laotian villagers in the Annamite Mountains captured a saola, one of the rarest animals on the planet. The Bolikhamxay Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office, advised by the IUCN Saola Working Group and the Lao Programme of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), sent a team to examine and release the animal. Sadly, the saola, weakened by its capture, died after a few days in captivity.
So why isn't this purely bad news? The upside is that efforts to protect the species, despite the loss of one more of its members, will benefit greatly from the saola's capture. Previously, conservation efforts were restricted by their near complete lack of knowledge of the animal's biology and behavior. The saola, often likened to a unicorn because of its enigmatic nature and horns, was only discovered in 1992, in Vietnam, and has never been sighted in the wild by a biologist. The last time one was seen was in 1999, when automatic camera traps photographed wild saola in Laos. While a live saola in captivity would be much better for all parties, there's still a lot to be learned from study of the animal's body.
Study of the carcass can yield some good from this unfortunate incident. Our lack of knowledge of Saola biology is a major constraint to efforts to conserve it. This can be a major step forward in understanding this remarkable and mysterious species. It's clear that further awareness-raising efforts about the special status of Saola are needed but the Saola doesn't have much time left. At best a few hundred survive, but it may be only a few dozen.The situation is critical.
So while the loss of the saola is tragic (it's unclear why the villagers captured it), there's a considerable silver lining. Going forward, those dedicated to saving the species and getting it off the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, have a much better shot.