The Saola is a relative of antelope and cattle.

Hanoi - One of the world's rarest mammals is threatened with extinction due to illegal trapping aimed at snaring other animals, conservationists said on Monday.

The saola, a large bovine with long, straight horns, is being caught in traps designed for deer, civets and other animals destined for the lucrative wildlife trade, the World Wide Fund for Nature said 20 years after the species was first identified.

“Paradoxically, the saola seems to be one of the few vertebrates in the Annamites without a high price on its head,” said William Robichaud, coordinator of the Saola Working Group.

“Saola are caught largely as by-catch, like the tuna and dolphin scenario.”

The saola was first defined in 1992, after three skulls were discovered in hunters' homes, and has become a symbol of biodiversity in the region. The species is shy, does not survive long in captivity and has never been observed by a scientist in the wild.

The population is perilously small. Robichaud estimated there were between a few dozen and a couple of hundred left.

Vietnam and Laos have set up a network of protected areas to tackle rampant poaching. A team of forest rangers was set up in central Vietnam last year with funding from Germany.

“The lack of significant demand for saola in the wildlife trade gives great hope for its conservation,” Robichaud said. “But we still need to act.” - Sapa-dpa