It is unclear whether the subject of today’s post actually exists.  That would not be such a shocking statement if this article concerned angels, true innocence, or honest politicians, but I am not writing about such abstract concepts–instead I am writing about a large ruminant animal from the bovine family!  The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is closely related to other bovines such as the aurochs, the wisent, the yak, and the zebu.  The creature was discovered by taxonomists only two decades ago, in 1992, in the remote Annamite mountains, a heavily forested range which runs along the sweeping curve where Vietnam meets Laos and Cambodia.  Unfortunately the biologists did not find any live specimens of the animal, but they discovered three saola skulls in the houses of local hunters.  An exhaustive three month hunt for the living creature turned up nothing.

A Man holds a Saola skull in Bolikhamxay Province (near the Laos/Vietnam border)

And yet saolas were subsequently spotted—and even hunted—by local mountain residents after that.  In 2010 a live male was captured by villagers, but the creature expired before scientists and veterinarians could reach him.  Scientists and rangers have occasionally captured pictures of saolas by means of remote hidden cameras, but the forest animals are so furtive and remote that we only know what they look like, not how they behave (although mountain people call them “the polite animal” because they are said to be so reserved and calm).

A male Saola photographed by hidden camera in 1999 (William Robichaud)

Saolas are dark brown with a fetching black strike running diagonally along their back and white slashes on their feet and faces.  Not nearly as large as wisents and zebus, adult saolas stand only about 85 cm (3 feet) tall at the shoulder they weigh approximately 90 kg (about 200 lbs). The most noticeable feature of the rare animals are their large antelope-like horns which curve slightly backward and grow to half a meter (1.5 feet) in length.  The saolas look like they descended from a common ancestor of antelopes, bisons, and cattle (although they are more closely related to the latter two creatures than to antelopes).  Based on their small teeth, saolas are browsers who nibble on tender shoots and berries (as opposed to grazers like cows).

A female Saola captured in 1996. She was apparently very gentle and trusting but she only survived a fortnight in captivity.

The first paragraph of this post was mercifully disingenuous:  the saola almost certainly walks the green earth even as you read these lines.  However the saola population is ridiculously tiny: the world population is estimated to be between a dozen and 250 individuals.  The government of Vietnam has mounted a spirited defense for the phantasmagoric ruminant by creating wildlife refuges and trying to educate native people not to hunt the last specimens, but deforestation and accidental trapping keep taking a toll (most saolas are captured in traps meant for other creatures).  It is possible that, like the wisent, the saolas will again flourish, but more likely we discovered them only to lose them again forever.