Often called the Asian unicorn, little has been uncovered about the enigmatic saola in the three decades since its scientific discovery. None exist in captivity and this rarely seen mammal is already critically endangered (the last step before extinction). We know saola from several camera trap photographs, a few short-lived captured individuals, and species remains found in villages.

  • Status
    Critically Endangered
  • Population
  • Scientific Name
    Pseudoryx nghetinhensis
  • Height
    Average 33 inches at the shoulder
  • Weight
    176-220 lbs
  • Habitats
    Evergreen forests with little or no dry season

The saola was first documented by scientists in May 1992 during a joint survey carried out by the Ministry of Forestry of Viet Nam and WWF in north-central Viet Nam. The team found a skull with unusual long, straight horns in a hunter's home and knew it was something extraordinary. The find proved to be the first large mammal discovery in more than 50 years, and one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.

Saola (pronounced: saw-la) are recognized by two parallel horns with sharp ends, which can reach 20 inches in length and are found on both males and females. Meaning “spindle horns” in Lao and a Tai ethnic language in Viet Nam, they are a cousin of cattle but resemble an antelope. Saola have striking white markings on the face and large glands on the muzzle, which may be used to mark their territory or attract mates. They are found only in the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Viet Nam.

In Viet Nam, a search for the elusive saola

Conservationists continue to be optimistic that the saola, albeit critically endangered, survive today—with estimates suggesting up to 100 individuals might remain in the wild. Buoyed by this hope, WWF, alongside partners and other wildlife organizations, is working hard to locate saola in their natural habitat, while simultaneously drawing up plans that will help conserve the species for future generations.

A ranger crouches on the ground and uses a spoon to put a sample into a tube

Why They Matter

  • Its rarity, distinctiveness, vulnerability, irreplaceability, and cultural significance as an symbol of the Annamite forest for Lao and Viet Nam, coupled with the lack of conservation attention globally make it one of the most critical priorities for conservation in the region. The current population is thought to be only a few hundred at most, and possibly only a few dozen.


  • Population Unknown
  • Extinction Risk Critically Endangered
    1. EX

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

With its unusually long horns and white markings on the face, the saola is a strong symbol of biodiversity in Lao and Vietnam.

Habitat Loss

As forests are cleared to make way for agriculture, plantations and infrastructure, saola are being squeezed into smaller spaces while human access to their remote habitat increases, bringing people into the once inaccessible areas where saola are thought to still roam.


A 2020 WWF report estimated ~12,000,000 snares are present in the protected areas of Lao, Viet Nam and Cambodia at any given time. These snares are cheap to make, and indiscriminately trap animals as small as mice to as large as elephants, including the saola. Although not necessarily the target, saola are at risk of being bycatch in snares that are set to catch other ground dwelling species that supply the trade in wild meat and traditional medicine, both domestically and internationally. Growing demand from increasingly wealthy urban populations are driving demand for wild meat and traditional medicines at an unsustainable level, while fragmentation of forests and improved infrastructure are making remote areas more accessible and vulnerable to this hunting and trade.

What WWF Is Doing

A waterfall flows in a dense green forest with a blue sky

WWF has been involved with the protection of the saola since its scientific discovery. We helped improve the management of Vu Quang Nature Reserve where the saola was discovered, and helped establish two new adjacent saola reserves in the Thua-Thien Hue and Quang Nam provinces. 

WWF also works on research, improved community-based forest management, capacity building among government and community rangers, preventing poaching, and reducing demand for wildlife products that drive snaring. By collaborating with our local partners as well as other organizations that are committed to conserving the saola and the Annamites, WWF is playing an active role in the international efforts to save this species from extinction.

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