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Bigfoot.  The Loch Ness Monster.  The Yeti.   All three of these mythic creatures have never, formally, been studied by science — as they almost certainly do not exist.  But some creatures — real creatures, that is — truly evade study.

The saola, pictured, has a mythical reputation, often referred to as an Asian unicorn (despite the fact that it has two horns).  The animal, believed to be native to parts of Vietnam and Laos, is probably closer related to wild cattle than anything else.  To scientific researchers, knowledge of its existence is relatively new — the first time they came across the saola was 1992, when they found three skulls which did not match any known animal.   The search for a live saola, expected to last a mere three months, is still ongoing nearly two decades later.

In the summer of 2010, scientists came close, when villagers in Laos captured one – only to have it die before members of the scientific community could study it.   (The villagers did manage to take a picture first.)  It was the first time that anyone had sighted the animal in roughly ten years, and while the animal went unstudied while alive, we were able to learn some things about t.  First, we now know that they live in and around the Bolikhamxay province of Laos (the green region on this map; Laos itself is the green region on this map), central to the nation.  And the biological information from the saola carcass may make it easier to protect future ones which man comes across — which, given that the saola population is almost certainly critically low (perhaps in the low hundreds) is vital to staving off its extinction.

For now, Laotian authorities are asking villagers to leave the saola undisturbed if they encounter one in the wild.

Bonus fact: Laos gained independence from France in 1954 and joined the UN at the end of 1955.  But seven years later, in 1962, Time Magazine called Laos a fiction of Western creation, noting that the locals did not, by and large, realize that they together formed a nation: ”Though it has a king, a government and an army and can be found on a map, Laos does not really exist. Many of its estimated 2,000,000 people would be astonished to be called Laotians, since they know themselves to be Meo or Black Thai or Khalom tribesmen. It is a land without a railroad, a single paved highway or a newspaper. Its chief cash crop is opium.”

From the Archives: Immaculate Conceptions: Another strange animal in the Vietnam/Laos region.

Originally published

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