Studying the rare and endangered animals of the Annamites.

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Back into the jungle

I’d almost forgotten what the jungle felt like. It was dark and damp. Even at midday, the forest floor, locked underneath the dense closed-canopy overhead, was illuminated by a hazy half-light. The humidity was sauna-level high. The lens on my camera was perpetually fogged: no matter how many times I wiped it with the inside of my shirt, it clouded up again, shrouded in a white mist. The landscape was typical Annamites terrain: steep, rocky, strewn with streams and deep chasms. It was, I remember thinking, as if long ago some geological giant had picked up the landscape and crinkled it like tinfoil. We hiked up and down and up and down and up and down through the jungle—though “hike” is probably the wrong word to use. Most of the time we climbed, hand over hand, grasping at whatever roots or branches would, we guessed, hold our weight. I was impressed by the team. They moved through the forest with an alacrity that I had seen on few occasions. I could tell, even in those first few hours, that I was lucky to have fallen in with this crew. Yer, one of the local villagers from Ban Kalo, lead the way with machete in hand, followed by myself, Sonxay carrying his antiquated AK-47, and another villager, usually Nuy or Khin.

We traveled along ridgetops and small streams. My goals for the survey were simple: More than anything I wanted to prove that Saola existed in this region. To do that I collected jungle leeches. Nothing new there: I have, by this point, as most of my readers know, become an expert leech-hunter. And the hunt was on. We don’t know the number of leeches needed to detect Saola if it is the species is present, but because Saola are so rare, the number is certainly high: I think it will be at least in the tens of thousands, and possibly in the hundreds of thousands. That’s a lot of leeches. At that number leeches are better measured in cubic feet or the truckload. I wasn’t holding my breath that we would be able to get a Saola detection from this short survey, but if you don’t collect any leeches the chances of detecting Saola are zero. We had to try. The second goal was to assess the general ungulate status in the area, which could serve as a proxy for likelihood of Saola presence. To assess ungulate status I searched for footprints or bite marks on vegetation. Like a detective, I searched for clues, any evidence that would help paint a picture of the ungulate community living in this part of Xe Sap. It was my chance to live the life of a true naturalist, and I reveled in it. But I didn’t just rely on jungle sign. I also had another way to gather information on elusive Annamite ungulates: camera trapping. The cameras that I brought with me on this survey would be my eyes in the forest.

Tiger leech

Tiger leech

Steep terrain

Steep terrain

First camp

We woke early on the morning of May 21 and assembled in the barren-earth courtyard. Khamhou, our WWF representative, gave last minute orders to the porters. His voice was soft, stripped of any commanding quality, barely audible above the background noise of a Katu village at daybreak. And yet when he spoke people listened. We finished packing the supplies. Then we set off on motorbikes down a dirt road rutted with well-worn tired tracks etched deep into the hard red clay. I marveled at the fact that there was a road running through the protected area, opening this biologically spectacular piece of jungle real estate to easy access from nearby border towns in Vietnam, opening it to an untold number of poachers. But, as is typical of every other place I have been in Southeast Asia, infrastructure development takes priority over wildlife protection. I was dismayed but not surprised. After half an hour we stopped. I jumped off the motorbike, shouldered my pack, and we stepped off the road and into the forest. We hiked for several hours. In the early afternoon we came to an ideal camping spot: an open flat area beside a small stream. I wanted to push further into the jungle but the team insisted we stop here, claiming that there would be no other suitable locations upriver. I fished the topographical map out of my backpack and poured over its kaleidoscopic contour lines. They were right. If we had a smaller team it would have been possible to go deeper into the forest. But at thirteen members we were a large group, and we needed a sizeable camping spot. I reluctantly agreed. The guides began making camp: they cleared the area of brush with their machetes and cut poles that they then used to construct the skeleton of our makeshift shelter. Within an hour they had finished. It was, I remember thinking as I came back from gathering firewood, a nice-looking camp.

We spent the afternoon resting. We would need all our strength for the upcoming expedition. The guides played cards around the smoldering embers of a campfire, laughing and chatting and smoking their long homemade Katu pipes. I read in my hammock and then poked around the campsite. Sometimes, in my hyper-focused surveys, which are directed towards understanding large mammal status and distribution, I overlook the smaller things, especially the arthropods. But make no mistake: the insects, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes that roam the leaf litter are no less spectacular than other taxa. Smaller, yes. But just as awe-inspiring. Breaks like this are my chance to explore this often-overlooked dimension of tropical forest biodiversity. Within minutes I had snapped photos of black velvet-winged damselflies, flame-colored Hemiptera, and an emerald beetle that glowed as if it had been dipped in phosphorescent paint. At one point I stumbled across a giant walking stick that moved with a jerky-swaying motion meant to mimic a twig waving in the wind. It was a species I had never encountered before—a poignant reminder of the wonders and mysteries in the jungles of the Central Annamites.

First camp in Xe Sap

First camp in Xe Sap

Amazing arthropods

Amazing arthropods

Assembling the team

At Ban Kalo we assembled our complete team. The group that had walked in included myself, Kai, and Son—a group that I referred to as the “Rough Hikers,” for no other reason than because I was, at the time, reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He stormed San Juan Hill on a horse, we had stormed the southern Laos highlands on foot. The rest of the team included a WWF employee, Khamhou, who had traveled to the village by a different, northerly route, an Army representative, Sonxay, and five Katu people from Ban Kalo who would serve as our guides. I immediately struck it off with Sonxay. He was medium-height, with a round face, almond-shaped eyes, and a mop of thick black hair that was usually covered in a camo-colored hat. I was struck by the fact that he was always smiling. But, even more than that, I had the impression that he would be smiling even in the thick of it—during the worst that jungle life had to offer. I would later be proven right. His toothy grin and boisterous laugh seemed to strike an odd discord with the battered AK-47 that never left his side. It was the same disharmony I felt when I stumbled across remnants of war in the jungle. It was also a poignant reminder that that area we were working in was more dangerous than the areas in Vietnam where most of my work had occurred. This region of Laos had little influence from the central government. Law and order fell to the local villages, which meant, in reality, that it was scarce, and in some places it seemed almost nonexistent. It could be a bad area.

We spent the afternoon preparing supplies for the trip. As we sat in a circle filling leech tubes with buffer, I could sense the excitement that accompanies the start of a new survey. When we finished it was dark. I found a hammock downstairs and let myself become intoxicated by the night sounds that quivered on the humid-heavy air: Katu mixed with laughter and the burbling of water being drawn through hookah-style pipes, the echoing calls of tree frogs as they sang their otherworldly chorus, the crackling of firewood and the spluttering of oil as vegetables were fried over open flames. I enjoyed these last hours of village life. Tomorrow we would be in the jungle.

The team preparing supplies

The team preparing supplies

Sonxay

Sonxay

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

 

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