Saola (known as Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), one of the rarest and most threatened mammals on the planet, has been photographed for the first time in Vietnam since 1998, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

In a statement released on November 12, the organisation said the animal was caught on film in a hard-to-reach area on Truong Son range in Quang Nam central province on September 7 by a camera trap set by the WWF and central Quang Nam province’s Forest Protection Department.

“When our team first looked at the photos we couldn’t believe our eyes. Saola are the holy grail for South-east Asian conservationists so there was a lot of excitement,” said Dr. Van Ngoc Thinh, WWF-Vietnam’s Country Director. “This is a breath-taking discovery and renews hope for the recovery of the species.”

William Robichaud, Coordinator of the Saola Working Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission, stated that these are the most important wild animal photographs taken in Asia, and perhaps the world, in at least the past decade. “They are also inspiring evidence of the effectiveness of the forest guards model to keep saola from sliding into the abyss of extinction”, he noted.

Saola, dubbed the Asian Unicorn because it is so rarely seen, looks like an antelope in appearance, and is recognised by two parallel horns with sharp ends which can reach 50 centimetres in length.

The species was discovered in 1992 by a joint team from Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry (now the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development) and WWF during a trip surveying the forests of Vu Quang in Ha Tinh province, near Vietnam’s border with Laos. The team found a skull with unusual horns in a hunter’s home. The find proved to be the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years and one of the most spectacular species discoveries of the 20th century.

The last confirmed record of a saola in the wild was in 1999 from camera-trap photos taken in the Laos province of Bolikhamxay. In 2010, villagers in the province captured a saola, but the animal subsequently died.

In Vietnam, the enigmatic species was seen for the last time in 1998.

Scientists estimate about 200 saola, maybe only a few tens, now survive in the remote, dense forests along the Vietnam-Laos border.

The latest sighting of the animal will help WWF and partners in the search for other individuals and in targeting the essential protection needed.-VNA