Studying the rare and endangered animals of the Annamites.

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Ban Kalo

We staggered into the village of Ban Kalo at noontime on the third day. I remember the day well. The sky was a cloudless aquamarine, the color of shallow water over sandy bottom, and in the undulating heat waves rising off the tin-roofed houses of the village it seemed to ripple as though being caressed by wind-blown waves. We were exhausted. The twelve-hour-plus days of hiking through mountainous terrain had taken its toll: my legs ached, long skid marks chaffed down my back and shoulders from the straps of my backpack, and my skin, now stained the deep amber-tinted brown of iced-tea, burned. We trudged to the hut of the village headman. After the usual pleasantries, which mercifully did not involve any ceremonial wine drinking at this early hour, I collapsed to the wooden-plank floor. From a sitting position, I snapped a few quick pictures of the animal trophies on the wall, noting the species, age, and sex of each. One red muntjac (Muntiacus muntjac) head, with long furry pedicles and hooked antler tips, struck me as particularly impressive. Then I stretched out and fell asleep.

I awoke just as the last light was fading behind the hills. I stepped outside. A familiar Katu village scene unfolded before me. In the dim light, it reminded me of one of the grainy black-and-white photographs in the nineteenth-century Indochina history books I have cram-jammed on my bookshelf back home: men and women in patterned clothing sitting in circles with long pipes, smoke curling from their flared nostrils, children running naked and carefree through the streets. We ate dinner with the headman and his family. The ceremonial rice wine was brought out. I drank as little as I could, not wanting to subject my liver to the same punishment the rest of my body had taken over the past few days. During the course of the meal the talk turned to animals—or, more accurately, I steered it in that direction. The men in the group claimed that, although rare megafauna like elephants and tiger had been hunted out years ago, several ungulates persisted in the region. I asked about Saola. The village headman, who, judging by the trophies on his wall, was an adept hunter, stroked the wiry hairs at the corner of his mouth and said that Vietnamese hunters had killed Saola in recent years in eastern Xe Sap. Maybe, he said, there were a few left. I rolled out a map of the protected area and asked where he thought they would be. He pointed to the area we were going the next day. I sat that night for a long time staring at the map. I gazed at it long after the last bowl of rice wine had been drunk and the last villager had drifted out of the hut. After three grueling days of hiking, we had arrived at the jumping off point for an expedition to one of the most remote and, in my opinion, biologically promising areas in Southeast Asia. I could only hope that a few rarities, perhaps even Saola, had managed to hang on in a region that had already been decimated by forest loss and unsustainable hunting. Did Xe Sap harbour endemic Annamite jewels? We would find out.

Ban Kalo

Ban Kalo

Red muntjac trophy

Red muntjac trophy

The miners

The miners lived in two makeshift shelters propped up against the banks of the Pa Le river. They had come to this no-mans-land to dredge the river silt for gold—whether legally or illegally I wasn’t sure, but I would guess the latter. We trudged into the first camp. It had taken a full day of walking from the village of Ban Pa Le to get here. A steady rain had fallen all afternoon, turning the path into a muddy boot-sucking quagmire. We were bone-tired. I let my backpack fall off my shoulders and slouched to the ground. There were ten or twelve people in the camp. A middle-aged man jolted forward, hand outstretched, and introduced himself as the boss of the operation. He was a thickset man, with a pudgy face and deep-set eyes that stared out from his dark sweat-glistening skin like white marbles sunk into a fistful of wet brown clay. He was Lao. The rest of the miners were from Vietnam. The Vietnamese eyed me silently with stony expressions. They were a grimy lot, smeared from head to toe in river sediment, muck, and motor oil. I had an uneasy feeling around them. My uneasiness turned to black anger when I saw that they were butchering a muntjac in the corner of the shelter. It was only then that I noticed the piles of snares littering the campsite. I swallowed my disgust and asked if I could examine the muntjac. I was, after all, there as a biologist, and information on muntjac from this area was scarce. No dice. They didn’t want anything to do with me. The feeling was mutual. The Lao boss, sensing the almost palpable dislike, became friendlier and more talkative. I used the opportunity to ask him about wildlife in the area. I showed him various pictures in my guidebook. When he saw the Saola drawing he lighted up. “I’ve seen that!” he exclaimed. When I pressed for details, he said that he had seen the animal two months ago near the mining camp while driving at night. What was the most distinctive feature that he remembered? His reply: long straight horns and white blotches on the face, both of which, he claimed, were very different from a serow. I was convinced, and still am, that he had seen a Saola.

We walked to the second camp , which was less crowded, and and settled in for the night. I stared at the river, marveling both at the beauty of the jungle and the destruction that was being caused by the mining. Later that night, just as we were nodding off to sleep, the Lao boss stumbled into camp. He bent down to my hammock and shook me. The smell of whisky, warm and sticky-sweet, hit me full in the face. I choked down a gag. “Haaay,” he said, shaking me again. “I ever tellya my wife’sa doctur? Vury vury reeech doctur. Vury vury bee-yoo-tiful. Gonna see her vury vury soon.” I rolled over on my side, away from him. “Haaay. Dontcha wanna hear ‘bout my bee-yoo-tiful wife?” “Oh Jesus,” I groaned. “I have to get to sleep. I have a long day ahead of me.” But he didn’t hear me. Or he didn’t care. I fell asleep to his drunken monologue. “Wife’sa doctur in Veen-tee-ane. Vury vury reech. Vury vury preeety. Gonna see her vury vury soon . . .”

First mining camp seen from above

First mining camp seen from above

Mined riverbank

Mined riverbank

Ban Pa Le

The sun was setting over the jagged teeth of the ridge that surrounded the remote village of Ban Pa Le. It had taken twelve hours of hard walking to get here. My legs and shoulders ached. But it had been worth the walk: I’d missed the sights and sounds of a Katu village. Woman clad in multi-color dresses scurried about to finish last-minute chores in the dying light. Many of them carried infants in simple cloth slings that hung like satchels across their backs: were it not for the occasional squirming or protruding limb, it would be easy to think that they were carrying rice or firewood. The men sat in circles smoking long pipes filled with strong homemade tobacco. Sweet-smelling smoke permeated the still air. The children darted from hut to hut chasing one another, their high-pitched giggling mingling with the slap-slapping of bare feet against the ground. The scene was charming in its simplicity.

Mr. Bun Ma, the village headman, called us in for dinner. We ate rice and stir-fried shoots. Halfway through the meal he apologized for not being able to provide protein. He said, in a low voice, so low that it was almost a whisper, that times had been particularly hard. I waved off his explanation and said that the meal was the best I had ever had in Laos. And I meant it. I wouldn’t have traded it for the finest steak in the finest Western restaurant in Vientiane. A smile broke out across his sun-stained face. After dinner he invited several family members into the hut to drink palm wine. We sat in a circle, talking and passing around the communal bowl. I asked about his family and the village. And then I asked about the animals in the region. Mr. Bun Ma called his son-in-law over and they poured through the Mammals of Vietnam guidebook that I had handed them. They pointed to various pictures and nodded: serow, sambar, muntjac were common. Small cats were routinely seen. Even leopard, said the son-in-law, were not difficult to find. As evidence he showed me an inch-and-a-half-long canine that hung from his necklace. “Sua dau,” he said, pointing to the leopard drawing in the book. I pictured the large cat prowling off the page and out the doorway and into the night. The thought filled me with delight. And what about Saola? I asked. It was the question I had been leading up to. There was a flurry of conversation. Then Mr. Bun Ma shrugged his shoulders and said that they may have been found in the area in the old days. Now, there were no more. But the son-in-law nodded, pointed to the drawing, and said “soong soor, soong soor.” My ears perked up at the Katu name for Saola. According to him, Saola weren’t found in the immediate area, but had been found recently in the lands to the east, near the border with Vietnam. That was the direction we were heading. I could only hope that a few individuals had managed to hang on.

Katu hut

Katu hut

Katu valley

Katu valley

Getting there

Getting there was going to be an adventure in itself. From The capitol of Laos, Vientiane, I took an overnight bus to a town in the southwestern part of the country called Pakse. There I met up with my WWF colleagues and we took a car east. With every mile that we traveled the countryside changed. The roads, at first paved, became gravel and then dirt and finally didn’t resemble roads at all. The towns we passed became simpler and poorer. So, too, did the people. Amenities like electricity and running water became rare. It was as if, by going east, deeper into the heart of Laos, we were also traveling back in time. We stayed the first night in a town whose name I’ve forgotten. Unaccustomed as I am to the Lao language, the names, especially in those first few days, seemed to wash right over my memory. The hotel was decent and I savored the last taste of civilization that I would have for several weeks. On the second day we stopped at a town called Kaleum. There we had to cross a river by barge. As we waited for the car to be loaded onto the platform I sat and talked with the villagers. When traveling to new areas I try to use every opportunity I can to ask the locals about wildlife in the region. In this case, I was particularly interested in reports on Saola. We squatted in a circle. The men, who were also waiting for the barge, stared out at the muddy river, which was oozing along at the pace of thick semi-dried molten lava. They told me that serowmuntjac, and sambar lived in the forested hills surrounding the town. They even claimed that there were a few tigers left to the north. But they had never heard of an animal resembling Saola. It confirmed my suspicions that this area was too far west, and the forest too dry, for the species. I thanked them. We loaded our car onto the barge, puttered across the river, and resumed our trek.

Halfway through the second day we reached a point where the driver wouldn’t go further. The road, a term which is applied here very loosely, had been almost impassable for some time now: a mired mess marked by deep gouges and puddles of mosquito-larvae-laden stagnant water. The driver ushered us out. “What now?” I asked. It was a naïve question. Now, I was told, we walk. “How far is it?” I asked. Kai, one of the two government representatives that would be accompanying me, twisted his mouth and narrowed his coffee-black eyes. “About three days to Ban Kalo,” he said, and then added, “if we walk fast.” I turned to Son, our second government representative. “And Ban Kalo is our final stop before entering Xe Sap?” He nodded. The three of us shouldered our packs and waved to the driver. The forest, which had previously been tumbling past the blue-tinted windows of the car, now hemmed us in from all sides, dark and solemn. We set off.

Crossing the river by barge

Crossing the river by barge

 

Xe Sap

Xe Sap. Say it out loud: “zay saap.”  The “z” snaps off the tongue, while the softer-sounding “s” lingers like the slow hissing of snuffed-out flame. Those two words are enough to send chills through any Southeast Asian biologist. In fact, mention it to a group of them and watch what happens: the one or two who are lucky enough to have been there will tell field stories to an enraptured audience whose eyes have glazed over with equal parts excitement and envy. (My favorite yarn was when Rob Steinmetz told of a late night tiger encounter while surveying there in 1999. Both he and the tiger decided to go their separate ways. I think Rob was the more relieved of the two.) Why all the fuss? Because Xe Sap National Protected Area is one of the most remote, least explored, and biodiversity-rich protected areas in the region. It’s a treasure-trove of biological secrets. A true gem of the Annamites. And it’s where I’ll be taking you over the next several posts.

Xe Sap is located in southeastern Laos along the border with Vietnam. There are a couple reasons why Xe Sap is unique. First, there’s size. At 1335 square kilometers, Xe Sap one of the largest protected areas in the region, dwarfing those in adjacent Vietnam. For protected areas size matters. The larger the area the more likely it is that there will be remote regions that haven’t been hunted out: areas isolated enough to be protected from poachers. But size alone doesn’t explain its uniqueness. For that we have to turn to biogeography. Look at the map, and you’ll see that Xe Sap stretches some 80 miles from the east to west. Along that east—west gradient is an array of habitat types: wet evergreen forest, semi-evergreen forest, high-altitude cloud forest, and grasslands. Generally speaking the eastern regions are wetter and more mountainous while the western areas are drier and flatter. These diverse habitats contain an equally diverse assemblage of fauna and flora. While I appreciate all aspects of the biodiversity in these jungles, and would never slight, say, the birders for keeping their eyes peeled to the sky, I am at heart a mammologist, so that’s what I am focused on. And for mammals Xe Sap is phenomenal. The roster is like a Who’s Who of the Species Spotlight.

Until very recently Xe Sap contained a megafauna wish list. Within the last twenty years leopards prowled the thickly-forested hills, gaur lumbered in herds across the grasslands, elephants drifted like huge clouds of gray smoke through the forest, and tigers were the seldom-seen but always acknowledged rulers of the jungle. It’s not known if these species still exist within the protected area. Many have probably been regionally extirpated through the extensive hunting that plagues almost every corner of the Annamites. However, even if these large mammals have faded into memories, there is still much in Xe Sap to be appreciated, including, most notably, a number of endemics: Owston’s civet, Large-antlered muntjac, Annamite dark muntjac, Annamite striped rabbit, and (possibly) Saola. That “possibly,” nestled uncomfortably in parentheses, was what had brought me to Xe Sap. I was on a mission to assess the likelihood that Saola still existed in the easternmost part of the protected area. I was there to find out if this out-of-the-way jungle might hold one of the most elusive and endangered large mammals on the planet.

Xe Sap NPA relative to adjacent Vietnamese protected areas

Xe Sap NPA relative to adjacent Vietnamese protected areas

Yellow-throated marten

If I was to name, preferably at some sort of ecological-metaphorical gunpoint, the hands-down slickest small carnivore in the Annamites, odds are I would name the yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula). Sure, sure, on some days Owston’s civet would get the nod, but I like to think that, on average, this jungle phantom would get my vote. The yellow-throated marten is a medium-sized carnivore closely related to ferrets and weasels. It’s long, streamlined body, which includes a tail more than half its body length, belies a powerfully built physique. The most striking aspect of its appearance is its unique coat coloring: a chocolate-colored head abruptly gives way to a burnished golden body that then fades again into dark hind legs and tail. But even within this general pattern there is subtle variation: look closely and you can see that the feet shine a deep coal black and that the hair on the back of the neck burns a brighter gold that is tinged with orange overtones. This is a predator that is as visually arresting as it is ecologically stunning. Its muscular body was built to take down any small prey unfortunate enough to cross paths with it: from mice to rabbits to lizards to snakes to frogs to ground-dwelling birds, almost anything is fair game. It has even been reported to feed on small ungulates. It’s a good thing that yellow-throated martens don’t grow to be the size of tigers, or else we’d all be in trouble! This varied and adaptable diet partly explains the diverse habitats where it lives and its wide distribution. The yellow-throated martin ranges from the cold dry forests of Pakistan to the wind-swept taiga of the Russian Far East to the subtropical forests of China and down into the tropical jungles of Indochina and the Sunda shelf. And of course, it is found in the Annamite forests that I call home.

Wherever it is found, the yellow-throated marten is essentially a forest species. Because large amounts of its habitat have been lost, especially in Southeast Asia, which in recent decades has experienced the most rapid rate of deforestation in the world, it is likely that populations have declined. In heavily hunted areas, including large sections of Laos and Vietnam, populations are probably well below carrying capacity. However, unlike other small carnivores we’ve covered in Species Spotlight, such as the large Indian civet or marbled cat, the yellow-throated marten is still faring well overall. Stable populations exist in a number of protected areas across several Asian countries. Because of this the yellow-throated marten is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern. It’s satisfying to know that, unlike many of the species that roam the Annamite jungles, this small carnivore is doing OK from a conservation standpoint, and will likely be stalking these forests for many years to come.

I always hope that I’ll glimpse a yellow-throated marten during my fieldwork: a brief flash of auburn and ebony darting into the foliage. Alas, so far it hasn’t happened, though I remain hopeful that if I spend enough time wandering around the jungles here I will be rewarded with a sighting. But I have experienced the next best thing: a stunning photo taken by a camera trap that I set deep in the jungles of Laos. The photo, a black and white infrared image, is shown below. It’s one of the most spectacular camera trap photos I’ve ever gotten, whether from the jungles of Southeast Asia, or from my earlier work in South America. There is something beautiful and haunting in it. It’s indescribable, so I won’t even try. Just take a look for yourself.

Yellow-throated marten

Yellow-throated marten

Camera trap photo of a yellow-throated marten

Camera trap photo of a yellow-throated marten

A note on chronology

I dislike adding “filler” blog posts, but the aesthetic evil of a short note seems rather necessary, I’m afraid, to remind everyone about the timeline over which I’ve been writing. I’ve received a few “get-well-soon” messages from readers who fear that I am holed up in a Vietnamese hospital on the verge of gasping my last breath. I am in Vietnam, but rest assured, I’m feeling strong as an ox (or water buffalo?). The events I’ve just recounted happened last winter during a long fieldwork stint working with WWF. Of course, the long delay between happening and writing (almost one year!) is inexcusable. Please accept my apologies. All I can say is that, between finishing my Master’s degree at the University of Texas in the spring, then doing surveys in Laos early last summer, then moving to Berlin to start a new PhD program, then moving to Vietnam to start further fieldwork . . . I’ve been busy. But I am slowly getting caught back up with the blog. Next step: to write about my fieldwork in Laos this summer. Then we’ll be caught up to the present. And just in time, too: I start a new project in central Vietnam soon. Stay tuned for more posts! And don’t forget to spread the word to other potential readers. I find myself writing more frequently when I know people are reading.

Pit viper from Laos

Pit viper from Laos

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