Mythical creatures – the unicorn, the Loch Ness monster, dragons – fascinate us because a part of us wants to believe they are real. Who wouldn’t love to catch a glimpse of a winged horse soaring across the sky?
One animal — the saola, or “Asian unicorn” – recently came to international attention when a few blurry photographs of the once-thought mythical creature came to light. Scientists have known about the saola for many years, and minority peoples in Laos and Vietnam, where the animal lives, have known about it for centuries. Michele Thompson, Professor of History, studies the saola, having first learned of it 20 years ago. She says it is of real interest to biologists because it is so rare. “No scientist has seen one in the wild,” she says. “They have only seen saola that have been captured by local peoples.”
The saola is said to have been “recently discovered,” but that is only by scientists. Archaeological evidence of it exists, Thompson says, dating from the first centuries. For instance, images of horned animals engraved on bronze Dong Son drums — produced from about 600 B.C. or earlier until the third century A.D. — were once thought to portray mythical animals, but those animals are now believed to be saola.
She explains that the saola is not only its own species and its own genus, it is also its own tribe, which means that genetically it is very rare. Until recently, only the local people in Laos and Vietnam had seen the animal, which is unable to survive for long in captivity. “The issue of property rights in Vietnam got me fascinated with the saola,” Thompson says, explaining that the saola has been co-opted on a national level: the governments of Laos and Vietnam are claiming it, conservationists are claiming it and the minority peoples who know the animal best are claiming it. “There’s a tug-of-war over this animal,” Thompson says. “Who does it ‘belong’ to?” Thompson has applied for a grant to go to Laos and Vietnam next summer to study the situation with the saola.
Thompson refers to “transnational peoples” – groups that inhabit a particular area but do not recognize national boundaries. She says the transnational peoples in Laos and Vietnam had been disenfranchised but knew more about the saola than anyone else and had seen them. These peoples are being brought into the conservation effort, Thompson says, as their knowledge about the animal is recognized.
Three photos of the saola, taken at night with infrared camera, were recently released, and one of the photos appeared on CNN last month. Thompson says these images were the first such photos to appear in 15 years. Only one of the three photos really shows what the saola looks like: an antelope-like creature with two horns positioned close together on the front of its head. In profile, the two horns can appear to be one, hence the comparison with the unicorn.
Thompson says that, as with many rare animals, the saola have been poached via snares set in regions where they live. The minority peoples in the area who are now being brought into the conservation effort are being appointed as guards to remove snares put out by poachers, among other conservation measures being taken. “Snares are having a terribly detrimental effect on wildlife in Southeast Asia, not just on the saola,” says Thompson. “Hopefully the local peoples have been more empowered in their own areas by their inclusion in the conservation efforts.” Thompson credits Bill Robichaud, a saola conservationist, as having done more than anyone to bring minority people into the conservation effort.
Conservation groups are hoping to make the saola a “poster child” animal like the panda in China, Thompson says. “Everyone loves pandas, so people want to help them.” To preserve any animal you have to preserve habitat, which is good for the other wildlife and the people in the area.
Thompson’s areas of interest include Southeast Asia and the history of science and medicine. Before she became interested in the saola, she studied medicinal plants and the practice of big drug companies coming into an area and appropriating plants with ingredients needed for drugs.
To support the cause of saola protection, donations may be sent to Global Wildlife Conservation, P.O. Box 129, Austin, TX 78767-0129. Write “Saola” on the memo line of the check.