By the latter half of the 20th century
, many scientists believed pretty much all the larger mammals
had been "discovered" and classified
. More mammals were still being found but tended to be smaller things like bats
or very small primates
In 1992, biologist John MacKinnon and a team of Vietnamese researchers, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, went to explore as dense forested area called Vu Quang in a sparsely populated region in the mountains between Vietnam and Laos. Intrigued by skulls displayed on posts near the houses of hunters in some of the local villages, he inquired. The long sharp horns did not resemble anything he could recognize or that he was familiar with in the region.
After further study of the skulls and of skins, he and the team were amazed to find a brand new species of large (around 90-100 kg/200-220 lb) mammal. At first, they thought it to be a close relative to the antelope, which its horns do resemble. It was named the Vu Quang oryx, a name preserved in the scientific name of Pseudoryx nghetinhensis (the species name referring to two nearby Vietnamese provinces). DNA testing later found that it was more closely related to the ox (changing it to Vu Quang ox). The people of the region call it the saola (sometimes written "sao la" or "sao-la"), meaning "spindle horn."
Not only was the find of a rare animal amazing, but this animal was so removed (possibly by 5-10 million years) from nearer relatives that it was given its own genus. It was officially described for science the following year.
Much of the information about it came from interviews with local hunters and others from the region and the first live specimen to be caught and examined was in 1994. Besides the remoteness and difficulty of the terrain and foliage of the area, the animal is nocturnal and shies away from agricultural or populated areas. Another difficulty in studying it is that they have not been successfully kept in captivity for more than a few months before they have died.
Height (at shoulder): 80-90 cm/around 3 feet
Weight: 90-100 kg/200-220 pounds
Length (body): 1.35-1.5 m/4.5-5 feet
Length (horns): 50 cm/20 inches
Length (tail): 25 cm/10 inches
The coat is generally brown, ranging from a reddish to a darker color. They also have a thin black stripe along the back. There are white areas around the hooves, posterior, and on the face (stripes and splotches, near the eyebrow, cheeks, nose, and jaw). They have highly developed scent glands in front of the eyes and the horns (an attribute of both sexes) are black.
Saolas live in heavily forested (mostly evergreen) mountainous areas and steep valleys. In the warmer months they stay at higher elevations and come lower during colder months when there is less water to be found (elevations between 300-1800 m/1000-6000 feet). Reports are that they eat the leaves of trees, plants and bushes. They move in small groups of two to three and have (rarely) been seen in ones up to seven.
Gestation is thought to be around 33 weeks (this is an estimate only) and they are thought to typically give birth to one young. Lifespan is thought to be at least 10 years.
Since its discovery by science, the saola has become a target of poachers, who along with the native people of the region that hunt them to supplement their diet, have led to their being declared an endangered species. The estimated population is several hundred.
(Sources: www.ultimateungulate.com, www.animalinfo.org, www.time.com/time/magazine/archive/1994/940620/940620.environment.html, http://members.aol.com/mattwriter)