Studying the rare and endangered animals of the Annamites.

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Back into the wild

Enthusiasm is a powerful drug: God knows how many times I’ve used it to slog up the last hundred feet of a mountain, or claw my way through a wall of impenetrable jungle. Now my enthusiasm for going into the one place where we knew a Saola existed trumped everything else in my life. I was obsessed with the idea of getting into that patch of forest. I was obsessed by the idea of being so close to Saola. I still felt sick, but as I had done so often before, I pushed any health considerations aside. The work had to get done. Besides, I told myself, using an internal dialogue that could have been lifted straight from a Hemingway novel, this was tough work, and if you can’t tough it out you shouldn’t be here. I began preparing for the survey. Again, I spread my field gear out in my hotel room, which made it look rather like the forgotten warehouse of a secondhand Army supply store. Again, I looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t look any better than I had a few days before, and I certainly looked worse than any item in my field kit. But I was going to go into the field. I had to go into the field. An opportunity like this, on the heels of a recent Saola photograph, might not come again.

The WWF car lumbered through the Vietnamese countryside: a mechanical beast that seemed oddly out of place in the midst of the hulking slate-gray water buffalos that dotted the landscape. Typical scenes of country life flashed through the window: wooden shacks propped up alongside the road selling cigarettes and soda, mangy dogs lounging in the midday sun, endless rice fields stretching into the distance, peopled by conical-hat-wearing women, their figures quaking and quivering in the undulating heat waves. We drove on. Gradually the rice fields were replaced by shrubby vegetation and then secondary-growth Cecropia trees and then forest. It was hard to believe that this tropical forest—one of the most unexplored jungles on the planet—existed in such close proximity to a sea of rice paddies. We ground to a halt. A group of WWF forest guards sat at the edge of the road. I snatched my field pack from the back seat and we set off.

It felt good to be back in the jungle. Even after such a short time back in civilization, I had missed the forest. The humid air, sweet-smelling and sticky from rotting vegetation, the leaf-dappled sunlight that spilled through the canopy overhead, the fact that everywhere you turned there was life. We hiked for several hours. To my surprise, Anh Thanh met us along the way. He would be our Forest Protection Department guide. It was nice to see him again. After our previous work together I’d begun to think of him more as a friend or uncle than simply another work colleague. Eventually we made it to the camp. I found an empty space under the tarp and collapsed. I was exhausted—more so than I should have been after a half-day hike. The terrain, for that matter, hadn’t even been that difficult: it was nothing like the up-and-down gorges that I had scrambled across in other parts of the region. I felt weak. Lungs burning, arms shaking, it was as if I had just completed a grueling field expedition, rather than just starting one. I found myself wondering if I would be able to finish the survey strong. I didn’t question whether I would be able to finish the survey at all.

Anh Thanh leading the way

Anh Thanh leading the way

New photos!

I’ve put some new photos in the photo gallery, all taken on my last survey trip to Laos. Check them out!

Forest dragon

Forest dragon

Uncharted territory

The news of the Saola’s rediscovery in Vietnam shook the conservation community in Southeast Asia and beyond. Within a few days international headlines were carrying the news. For the first time in years the Saola was back in the media spotlight. (The last time the species made international news was in 2010, when, tragically, a Saola was captured in Laos and died shortly thereafter). I was thrilled that the species was getting so much attention. The Saola needs it: the species is, after all, probably the most least-known endangered large mammal on the planet. Understandably, the WWF Hue office was abuzz. A milestone had been reached. From the start, one of the goals of the WWF program in Vietnam was to confirm that the Saola, a flagship species for the greater Mekong region, survived. We now had conclusive evidence. The atmosphere at the office was charged with excitement: one could almost feel the electrons sparkling like static through the usually still office air. But beneath the surface of that excitement ran an undercurrent of urgency: we needed to get back into that area. Foremost on everybody’s mind was the question of whether there could be more Saola there. We had to find out. And soon. I began preparing for another expedition.

The exact location of the Saola photograph was a closely guarded secret within WWF. The location would only be released, I was told, after I signed a waver form stipulating that I wouldn’t share the information. It took several days for the waiver to come from Hanoi. When it did arrive, I was confronted with a document that contained enough boilerplate legalese to give Franz Kafka nightmares. Still, I didn’t begrudge WWF for their caution, which could be interpreted as paranoia by the uninformed. Revealing the location of one of the rarest mammals on the planet was not something to be taken lightly. I scribbled my name across the final page. I was interested to learn that the camera trap photo came from an area I had never been to before. The upcoming fieldwork took on a new dimension: for me this was uncharted territory. In fact, to my knowledge, not many biologists had been to that remote corner of jungle.

I sat in my hotel room with my field gear spread around me: a bedraggled hammock flung across the bed, tattered pants draped from the chairs, antimalarials and batteries scattered across the floor, the unblinking gaze of a headlamp staring at me from the dresser. It was only after sitting down and taking stock of my supplies that I noticed the poor condition of my field gear. Every item was broken, torn, ripped, cut, or blood-spattered. And then I stood up, walked to the bathroom, flicked on the light, and stared at myself in the mirror. I looked even worse. Weeks of jungle living had taken its toll. It was then that I realized just how weak I actually was. I felt terrible. Usually a rest in Hue does wonders to restore my health and spirits after an expedition into the field, but as the days ticked by I began to feel worse. My energy was zapped. I had a constant fever. I couldn’t keep down food. The day that the new expedition was supposed to kick off I hobbled into the WWF office and told my counterpart that I couldn’t join the survey. He was furious: changing plans last-minute can cause problems with future field permissions. But there was nothing I could do about it: I was physically incapable of going back into the field. In a moment of surprising self-delusion, I convinced myself, and my WWF colleagues, that after a few more days resting in Hue I would be well enough to join the survey. It was a decision I would later regret. But how could I turn down the opportunity to visit this remote jungle hideaway? It was the one place on the planet where we had definitive evidence of Saola.

Saola jungle

Saola jungle

After a long break . . .

After a long break I am back on the scene. First thing to do: wrap up the story of my fieldwork last fall in Vietnam. Then I can move on to the fieldwork in Laos I did earlier this summer. And finally, up to the present day, and the fieldwork in central Vietnam that I am currently preparing for. Thank you to everyone who has been dropping in after these long months of silence. Let’s get back up and running.

Leech on frog

Leech on frog

Unexpected news

Unexpected news awaited me back in Hue: for the first time in over 15 years a Saola had been photographed in the wild in Vietnam. Nothing could have been more unexpected. To catch one of the world’s rarest and most secretive mammals on camera was just short of miraculous. I remember sitting at my computer that first night back and staring for a full hour at the photo. It was a typical jungle scene, like thousands of others that I had come across in the past year. But in the right-hand corner, so far right as to be almost out of frame, was a large-bodied animal with two long backward-slanting parallel horns. Saola. Here was proof that the animal I had come searching for existed deep in the jungles of the Annamites. I remember feeling a jolt of surprise that this flesh-and-blood bovid was walking around central Vietnam. On the surface my surprise might seem odd. It sounds strange as I write it now. After all, I came to Vietnam in part to gather hard data on this elusive species. But after weeks of trudging through leech-infested forests and seeing nothing but an endless ocean of jungle something about the Saola had taken on a mythical, ghostly, almost supernatural quality. In my mind the Saola didn’t just walk through these jungles. It haunted them. And yet here was a photo of the animal. I was reminded that the Saola, for all its mystique and mystery, is still an eating breathing living creature.

This changed everything. My plans to rest for a couple weeks and then resume our scheduled surveys went out the window. We had to get into that area as soon as possible. I was run-down, tired, exhausted from our last trip. But the prospect of going into an area where we knew there was a Saola—at least one animal, hanging on against all odds—filled me with an energy and optimism that I had not felt for months. The Saola was there. Now we needed to collect a leech that contained its DNA. We just needed one leech. That jumble of nucleic acids could tell us more than any photograph would: potentially its sex and health, but also its unique genetic fingerprint, which would allow us to identify it in future leech samples. And then there was that lingering hope that where there was one Saola there might be more. Could there be a breeding pair? Could this remote pocket of forest be the key to the survival of the species?

We just needed one leech

We just needed one leech

Spotted linsang

My Monday morning work efficiency in Vietnam is inversely proportional to the number of hours I spend singing karaoke the night before: this is a great truth. At 8:05 am I was propped at my desk at the WWF office, bleary-eyed, sipping high-octane café sua, flipping through camera trap photos taken in the Saola Nature Reserves. Most of the pictures showed common species: a herd of wild pigs meandering across a clearing, a troop of crab-eating macaques coming to the ground to feed, a lone serow, large, black, and shaggy in the Annamite night. Then I see a pattern I’m not familiar with: a series of alternating black and white bands. I rub my eyes and look at the photograph again.  The image, like a string of Oreos, is still there. What is this? I wonder as I lean forward in my chair. The pattern, I realize, is attached to a small, slender, cat-like, furry body. I sit bolt upright and shout “A spotted linsang!” An overturned mug sends hot coffee across my desk.

I have good reason to be excited: the spotted linsang (Prionodon pardicolor) is one of the most striking and elusive small carnivores in the Annamites. It is beautifully patterned: black streaks against a sand-colored background run from the head to the shoulders then turn into bold blotches that end in a ringed tail. Although not considered particularly rare, it is known for being secretive and rarely recorded. The spotted linsang is smaller than either the Large Indian or Owston’s civets, weighing in at just over one pound. But don’t let its size fool you: this is a predator par excellence. Highly arboreal, the species stalks the treetops, scurrying from branch to branch, specializing in the capture of small birds. Its tail, which is almost as long as its body, helps provide balance when hunting feathered morsels. Like the other small carnivores we’ve looked at the spotted linsang has a variable diet: insects, rodents, frogs, and snakes are all fair game. The species has a wide range across Asia, living from Nepal and Assam east into China, then down through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. It is found in both primary and secondary forests and has even been observed in grasslands. Despite it’s wide geographic range the spotted linsang is infrequently recorded. It is unclear to what extent this reflects low densities or low detection rates. It is likely that the species is more common that previously thought but is difficult to detect because of its nocturnal and arboreal nature. Either way, the lack of information about its basic ecology makes the spotted linsang one of the most understudied small carnivores in Asia. Because of its large range and the lack of information suggesting general population decline the species is currently listed as Least Concern by the IUCN. Like many other species we’ve covered in Species Spotlight additional information is needed if biologists are to make a more accurate conservation assessment. I can only hope that our camera traps in Vietnam continue to detect this small forest phantom.

Camera trap photo of spotted linsang

Camera trap photo of spotted linsang

Re-haunting

Few things are as quiet as two dead Saola—or so it seemed to me as I gazed at the pair of skulls staring empty-eyed back at me. For a moment the everyday sounds of a Katu village at daybreak faded away. The clucking barking giggling running laughing cacophony was gone. In front of me, washed in a warm, almost pastel light, were remnants of a jungle ghost: two bleached ungulate skulls with the long tapering backward-slanting horns that can only be Saola. The sight entranced me. This collection of bone and horn seemed to capture the essence of the Annamites: Here was an animal found nowhere else on the planet, mysterious and secretive, slipping into oblivion as the rest of the world ran its course. As spectacular as these specimens were, I was all too aware that the skulls, expressionless as carved wooden masks, were shadows of the animal that I had come searching for. One part of me was thrilled to be so close to this near-mythical creature but another part was saddened that the encounter came in the dirt-floored dusty confines of a Katu hut. I traced my hands along the horns and imagined what it would be like to encounter a Saola in the wild: Splotches of sunlight quiver on the vegetation-choked floor of a jungle clearing. Without warning a burnished-black body materializes. It is a mature male. He stands for a moment, scans his surroundings, ears twitching, alert to even the faintest hint of danger. Nothing. Satisfied that all is as it should be, he lowers his head, carefully searching for the succulent green mon thuc leaves that pepper the clearing, and begins to feed. His movements are silent and fluid as drifting smoke. His smooth jet coat glistens in the broken sunlight. It gives startling contrast to the white markings scattered across his body: Ivory bands, like freshly laundered socks, encircle each foot, a snowy streak splashed across the tail, cream-colored markings like primitive tribal war paint on the face. Most impressive are the horns: perfectly symmetrical, three-foot-long parallel spears reminiscent of the desert-dwelling oryx’s of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. He feeds intently, eyes lowered, ears pricked. Unlike the smaller muntjac, which neatly snips each leaf from its stalk, the Saola clips the shoots close to the ground. The tearing and chewing sounds are just audible over the background jungle noise. Then he looks up, bristling at an unfamiliar sound or scent caught on the faint jungle breeze—and is gone.

It would almost certainly never happen but it was nice to think about.

Saola skull

Saola skull

Saola skull

Saola skull

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