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The European Union, Re:wild and WWF-Viet Nam mobilize emergency response to prevent imminent extinction of Asian “unicorn”

Latest Rapid RESCUE efforts aim to find world’s last Saola to save species from extinction

For immediate release, August 11, 2022

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For immediate release
August 10, 2022

One of the world’s rarest animals—the saola, a type of wild cattle likely down to a few individuals—is getting a critical emergency boost from the European Union, Re:wild and WWF-Viet Nam to prevent its extinction.

The saola is the focus of the latest efforts by the Rapid Response for Ecosystems, Species and Communities Undergoing Emergencies (Rapid RESCUE) fund, established in 2020 by the EU, Leonardo DiCaprio and Re:wild to provide a swift response to emerging biodiversity threats.

The funding will support Re:wild and WWF-Viet Nam in their search for the last saola that survive in Viet Nam, as a first step in securing these animals for a conservation breeding program to ensure the species’ survival. As a result of the global covid pandemic, intensive search efforts to find the last Saola were effectively stopped for two years, greatly increasing the need for emergency support to quickly initiate surveys and conservation measures to save it from extinction.

“We have an amazing opportunity here to find and save the last saola in Viet Nam,” said Andrew Tilker, Re:wild’s Asian species officer. “And as we are searching for saola, we will also be looking for some of the other special and endangered species that are found only in the Annamite Mountains. We are working with local stakeholders to start conservation breeding programs for a number of these species with the aim of someday returning them to the wild when it is safe to do so.”

The saola, which was only discovered by scientists in 1992, is so rare that no biologist has ever seen one in the wild. Their evasiveness has earned them the nickname Asian “unicorn.” Like other species in the Annamite Mountains, a rugged mountain chain on the border of Viet Nam and Laos, saola are the victims of unsustainable hunting through wire snares. Although the snares do not target saola, they indiscriminately kill ground-dwelling animals, and have emptied the forests of wildlife across the region.

“Protecting ecosystems is key for wildlife to flourish,” said Giorgio Aliberti, head of the European Union Delegation to Vietnam. “We all depend on it, as biodiversity is crucial to safeguard global food systems and ultimately food security. The European Union is proud to support conservation efforts to save species like saola from extinction, in line with the EU biodiversity strategy.”

Since the saola’s discovery, biologists have only photographed the species five times in the wild, all by camera traps—twice in Laos and three times in Viet Nam. The most recent camera trap photos were taken in 2013, when a WWF camera trap caught images of an animal in central Viet Nam. This year’s Southeast Asia Games, which ran from May 12 through May 23, featured the saola as its mascot.

“With funding from the EU through Re:wild, the USAID Biodiversity Conservation Activity and WWF-Viet Nam’s efforts will focus on rapidly detecting the last remaining saola individuals through the use of local ecological knowledge and state-of-the-art technologies such as environmental-DNA and intensive camera trapping,” said Nguyen Van Tri Tin, lead of WWF-Viet Nam’s wildlife program. “We hope that these search efforts and a successful conservation breeding program can recover the saola in Central Annamite and so preserve an important part of Viet Nam’s natural heritage.”

These efforts are part of a broader vision to establish the first-ever conservation breeding center not only for saola, but other rare and threatened animals found nowhere else in the world except the Annamites, including: large-antlered muntjac, Annamite-striped rabbit and Annamite crested argus pheasant. Re:wild and WWF-Viet Nam are working with Viet Nam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and multiple IUCN SSC species specialist groups to turn this vision into reality.

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Photo: Saola photo by Toon Fey, WWF

Re:wild protects and restores the wild. We have a singular and powerful focus: the wild as the most effective solution to the interconnected climate, biodiversity and human wellbeing crises. Founded by a group of renowned conservation scientists together with Leonardo DiCaprio, Re:wild is a force multiplier that brings together Indigenous peoples, local communities, influential leaders, nongovernmental organizations, governments, companies and the public to protect and rewild at the scale and speed we need. Learn more at

WWF is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organizations, with over 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.

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