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.