Four Amazing Asian Animals
In the past 100 years or so, fantastical beasts have emerged from the realms of legend and into reality
By Joel Quenby
The incredible remains of a giant whale the size of Herman Melville’s legendary Moby Dick were recently unearthed along the River Thames in London. The 17-meter carcass is 200–300 years old and, according to The Independent, “Archaeologists say it is one of the biggest single finds every discovered in Britain,” which will help “zoologists analyze how long-term commercial whaling has affected whale evolution and survival.”
Asia has also been the habitat of numerous amazing creatures, often assumed by the West to be the stuff of superstition—until their eventual capture. Some of these fantastical creatures, such as the Yeti or the Naga serpents that supposedly spew fireballs annually from the Mekong River, remain shadowy rumors in the realm of cryptozoology—the study of animals considered nonexistent by mainstream biology.
Here, we present some rare Asian specimens that have caused the human race to marvel over the years, but which eventually proved to be the real deal...
1. Not just an Apple Operating System...
What: The Snow Leopard is a moderately large cat, whose disputed taxonomic classification is subject to further study.
Where: It prowls 3,000–5,500 meters above sea level in Central Asian mountain ranges covering 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Background: First spotted in 1761, two American scientists (Georg Schaller in Pakistan and Rodney Jackson in Nepal) helped progress knowledge of the species. Smaller than other big cats, snow leopards evolved to deal with cold: their stocky bodies, thick fur, and small, rounded ears help to minimize heat loss. They have unusually large nostrils to help them breathe thin air; wide feet for effective weight distribution on snow; and long, flexible tails for extra balance on rocky terrain.
How many: Snow leopards’ secretive nature means that their exact numbers are unknown. Experts guess-timate that 3,500–7,000 exist in the wild and 600–700 in zoos around the world.
2. Iconic “black-eyed” bear
What: The Giant Panda is a much-loved bear with distinctive black-ringed eyes that subsists on a diet comprising 99 percent bamboo.
Where: Native to a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province but also in Shaanxi and Gansu.
Background: With no known pre-20th-century artistic representations of them, giant pandas were “discovered” when a French missionary received a skin from a hunter in 1869. By 1936, Ruth Harkness imported the first live cub to the West; “Su Lin” lived at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. In the 1970’s, loans to American and Japanese zoos were among the People’s Republic’s first cultural exchanges, and termed “Panda diplomacy.” In 2006, the New York Times reported that keeping pandas costs five times more than the next most expensive animal, an elephant.
How many: The endangered species is one of few whose natural habitats have gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Giant pandas are so slow to mate that zookeepers sometimes show them panda porn. However, experts believe conservation efforts are working, with around 200 animals currently living in captivity and as many as 3,000 living wild.
3. Southeast Asia’s “Polite” Ox
What: The Saola (or Vu Quang ox) is a forest-dwelling bovine that is technically an antelope, bearing similarities with the Arabian or African oryx.
Where: Presumed to exist only in Vietnam’s Vu Quang Nature Reserve and in Laos, near the Vietnam–Laos border.
Background: Hmong natives call the shy beast, which rarely enters farmland or ventures close to villages, saht-supahp (the polite animal) because it moves so quietly through the forest. Zoologists became aware of them in 1992, initially from unusual horns obtained in Vietnam. They found the saola mark its territories by opening a flap on its snout to reveal colossal scent glands, thought to be the largest of any living mammal.
How many: The Saola is one of the world’s rarest mammals. It is unknown how many exist as only 11 specimens have ever been recorded alive.
4. The Littlest Hobo
What: The Sun Bear is the smallest member of the bear family (also known as the “dog bear” due to its size or “honey bear” for its sweet-tooth).
Where: Lives as a loner or among groups in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar and Thailand to Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo.
Background: Named after the conspicuous pale orange–yellow marking on its chest, sun bears sometimes become domesticated pets. Primarily nocturnal, they do not hibernate and are strong swimmers and climbers, sleeping and spending much time up trees. They have a varied, omnivore diet, detecting most food by smell, as sun bears have poor sight. As their natural habitats deteriorate, they encroach onto farmland, plunder crops and damage property.
How many: Adult sun bears have few predators except humans—who hunt them for their gall bladders and paws, used in traditional Chinese “medicine”—and occasionally tigers or reticulated pythons. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified the species from “data deficient” to “vulnerable” status in 2007.