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Leeches’ blood meals could give more clues on saola, world’s rarest mammal

saola_cameratrap1_2013

The saola seen on the right in this camera-trap picture was the first one seen in 15 years.

WWF

The saola, a species so rare it has been called the Asian unicorn, has been photographed for the first time in 15 years.

A camera trap set up by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Vietnam captured images of the antelope-like animal in September, according to an announcement today from the conservation group. Saola are critically endangered and probably number in the low hundreds.

The animals are only known to live in the Annamite Mountains on the border between Vietnam and Laos. In 2011 Vietnam established a small saola reserve, but conservation is hindered by the paucity of data on their habitat.

Conservationists had become so desperate to pin down the animal’s habitat that they began surveying DNA from leech blood meals in hopes of finding saola sequences (see “A bloody boon for conservation”).

Nicholas Wilkinson, a Vietnam-based wildlife ecologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, who is leading those efforts, tells Nature that his team is waiting to hear back from lab testing of a very large number of leeches. The researchers also plan to collect large numbers of leeches from the area where the camera trap was located. “I have high hopes we’ll get encouraging results and 2014 will be the year of a proper leech-based survey for the species,” Wilkinson says.

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