WASHINGTON, Nov 12 (Reuters) - The critically endangered saola, an antelope-like creature native to Southeast Asia, has been photographed in Vietnam, the first sighting in 15 years, conservationists said on Tuesday.
Known for its two parallel horns that can grow to 50 inches (1.27 meters) in length, the saola is so rare that simply seeing a picture of one gives hope to those who want to preserve the species, said Van Ngoc Thinh of World Wildlife Fund.
"When our team first looked at the photos, we couldn't believe our eyes," Van Ngoc, WWF-Vietnam's country director, said in a statement. "This is a breath-taking discovery and renews hope for the recovery of the species."
The automatic camera trap that snapped the saola was set by the wildlife group and the Vietnamese government's Forest Protection Department in the central Annamite mountains.
The last confirmed record of a saola in the wild was in 1999, from camera trap photos taken in the Laotian province of Bolikhamxay. Villagers in Bolikhamxay captured a saola in 2010 but it subsequently died, the WWF said.
In Vietnam, the last confirmed sighting was in 1998, said Dang Dinh Nguyen, deputy head of Quang Nam Forest Protection Department.
The greatest threat to saola are wire snares set by hunters to catch deer and civets - a small nocturnal mammal - native to the same forests and destined for the illegal wildlife trade, Van Ngoc said.
To combat this trend, conservation groups recruited forest guards from local communities to remove the snares; since 2011, more than 30,000 snares have been removed from the area of critical saola habitat along the Vietnam-Laos border. The guards have also destroyed more than 600 illegal hunters' camps, the statement said.
Discovered by Vietnam's agriculture ministry and World Wildlife Fund in 1992, the saola was the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years. Twenty years on, the animal's elusive nature has prevented a precise population estimate, but at best, no more than a few hundred and possibly far fewer, survive in the forests along the Laos-Vietnam border. (Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Ros Krasny)