The rare horned saola, discovered as recently as 1992, is such a mysterious animal that is has often been referred to as the "Asian unicorn." In fact, the animal had not been seen since camera traps snapped a glimpse of the elusive creature back in 1999, and no biologist had ever spotted one alive.
But this all changed recently when surprising news surfaced that Laotian villagers had captured one, according to a report by Livescience. Lao authorities immediately sent a team of researchers, including advisers from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Wildlife Conservation Society, to examine the saola and, hopefully, to release it back into the wild.
Unfortunately, by the time that team arrived the animal had already grown weak from being held in captivity, and it died shortly after. It was not clear why the villagers chose to take the animal into captivity, but authorities hope that the incident will help raise international awareness about the saola and revive efforts to conserve this rare creature.
"The death of this saola is unfortunate," the Provincial Conservation Unit of Bolikhamxay Province said in a statement. "But at least it confirms an area where it still occurs and the government will immediately move to strengthen conservation efforts there."
Though the saola has two horns, it can look like a unicorn if viewed from the side. The sight of one of these animals is so rare that the surprise of one could understandably jostle one's observational skills. Some even believe that the Chinese myth of the unicorn may have derived from ancient sightings of a saola.
Almost nothing is known about the animal due to its rarity and elusiveness, and it's estimated that no more than a few hundred individuals are likely to exist. Efforts to keep saola in captivity have all failed, so if the wild population collapses the animal is likely to go extinct.
The recently captured specimen, though deceased, is nevertheless the best preserved carcass ever found. Researchers hope that studying it can improve their knowledge of the creature.
"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," said Dr. Pierre Comizzoli of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. "This can be a major step forward in understanding this remarkable and mysterious species."