Studying the rare and endangered animals of the Annamites.

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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?

Saola jungle

Saola jungle

"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

Ending

We are breaking camp. After eating the last of our rice and dried fish we start packing. I stuff my muddy mildew-ridden clothes into my backpack and begin untying my hammock. Behind me I can hear Anh Thanh singing a traditional Vietnamese song as he gathers the cooking utensils. His voice rises and dips in the brisk morning air like a swallow skimming across a jungle clearing. In front of me the Katu guides are pushing the rainwater off of the tarp stretched over our camp. The smack smack smacking of palms on plastic punctuates Anh Thanh’s singing. When they finish they pull the tarp down.  A subdued, canopy-filtered light floods the camp: it is as if someone had flicked on a dim overhead bulb. I wad my hammock into a fist-sized ball and cram it into an already cram-jammed backpack. Finished packing, I slump to the ground and stare up at the canopy. It’s a breathtaking sight. For a moment I let myself become lost in my thoughts. There is an immense relief when one finishes a survey: the miles have been walked, the mountains have been climbed, the information has been collected. The leeches, in our case, are now slumbering in chemical concoctions, waiting to be shipped to another country where latex-gloved laboratory technicians will unzip their guts and determine their last meals. But there is also, for me, a lingering reluctance to leave. There is so much work left to do: distant ridges left unexplored, trails unmapped, leeches waiting in the leaf-litter, some carrying blood from rare Annamite animals. I think back to everything I wish we had done differently: We should have spent more time surveying to the north where the forest is best. We should have worked longer days—we’ll never get back those lost hours. We should have done this, we should have done that. But then I push those thoughts aside. It’s too late for regrets. Besides, we still have a job to do. We need to get home in one piece.

Forest canopy

Forest canopy

“Di!” says Anh Thanh. “Go!” The melodious singsong voice is gone. His command, barked in the gravelly tone of an army officer ordering his troops, stirs our group to life. We shoulder our packs and set off up the trail. For the next several hours it’s slow going. That’s not to say, however, that the journey is without excitement. The river we need to cross has flooded. At the beginning of our expedition it was a fast-flowing creek. Now it’s a torrent. I’m reminded of python engorged with the body of its latest victim: in the last week this stream seems to have swallowed up all the rainwater in the Annamites. We lock arms and wade through the current. It takes all my strength to remain upright. Halfway across the chain breaks and two people are swept downstream. They disappear in the current. The rest of the group makes it to the other side then we all scramble down the bank looking for our missing team members. We find them one hundred yards away. They are trudging out of the water, disoriented, shaken, laughing. Seeing that they are unhurt we laugh too. Then we pick up the trail again. The Katu porters are ribbing their river-tossed comrades, one of whom, to their infinite amusement, doesn’t know how to swim. Distracted, they step directly over a three foot long emerald pit viper sunning itself on the path. They step over death. It is, I think to myself, as if one had obliviously brushed shoulders with the grim reaper on a crowded sidewalk. I snap a hurried picture and continue walking. I keep this secret to myself, marveling, once more, at the electrifying beauty of this deadly species. Two hours later, just as the last shreds of sunlight are slipping away over the mountain tops, we reach the Katu village. It is good to be back with friends. As we walk up to the village center I can feel a new energy flowing through our group. Mr. Tren, the headman, greets me with a bear hug, slaps me on the back, and ushers me into the nearest hut. Within minutes we are chatting, laughing, sipping rice wine, snacking on grub worms. The jungle is right outside the hut but seems a distant memory.

Pit viper

Pit viper on the trail

Hiking

Hiking out of the jungle

Rare muntjac sighted

A rare Annamite dark muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis) was recently discovered caught in a snare in the remote jungles of the Hue Saola Nature Reserve. Mr. Bui Huu Vinh, the Forest Guard team leader, said that his team saw fresh hunter tracks in the mud, then heard the screaming of an animal in distress. They ran toward the sound and found the diminutive deer struggling helplessly in a wire foot snare. It was released unharmed. Several other snares in the immediate vicinity were found and destroyed. This is a truly remarkable find. It is a rare glimpse of one the rarest and most unknown deer species on the planet. It is also the first time the animal has been seen in the wild in over ten years. We now have hands-on proof that the samsoi cacoong, or “the deer that lives in the deep, thick forest,” survives in heavily poached forests of Vietnam. But the relief is, for me, short lived: How many other Annamite dark muntjac are caught in snares, waiting to die? Can a species that is so heavily hunted persist in Central Vietnam? Will it slip into extinction less than twenty years after it was discovered by science?

Walking up to the muntjac

Walking up to the muntjac

Struggling in the foot snare

Struggling in the foot snare

Release

Release

Leechy weather

Our daily routine is simple: pick a direction, point to a spot on the map, and try to get there and back in one piece. In the pre-dawn glow of the campfire it looks surprisingly straightforward. It’s our own fault for believing the map. Each morning, full of the optimism that a fresh day inspires, we spread the paper out in front of us and plan our surveys. The map is helpful: it shows distances and elevation. But it is still a two-dimensional abstraction. It doesn’t show the walls of bamboo that we will have to hack our way through. It doesn’t show the sheer-drop slippery waterfalls that we will have to climb down. It doesn’t show the frothing rapids that we will have to cross. And so each morning we plan over-ambitious routes for the day. And each afternoon we stagger back into camp tired, hungry, beaten, having only covered a fraction of the ground we had planned on surveying. According to Anh Thanh, our veteran Forest Protection Department guide, this is the most treacherous landscape in Central Vietnam. I believe him. Yet that provides small consolation for the fact that to me we’re simply not covering enough ground. The cycle continues. Each day we push ourselves harder than the day before. Each night we feel more dead than alive.

Despite my concerns about not surveying enough area I remain optimistic about the work we are doing. The animals are there: every day we come across the cloven hoof prints of ungulates stamped into the soil. The leeches are there: in the leaf litter, on the vegetation, squirming up our legs. Putting two and two together we should be getting data on the mammals that silently stalk these jungles: fragments of mitochondrial DNA locked deep inside the blood cells of animals that the leeches have fed upon. These bits of nucleic acid, adrift in the stomach soup of an inch-long ectoparasite, are the puzzle pieces that we need as we begin to paint a portrait of one of the least known mammalian communities on the planet. To put together a complete picture we need as many brushstrokes as possible, which means lots of leeches. Fortunately we are getting good numbers: daily results are measured in hundreds, rather than tens, as has been the case during some of our previous surveys. Part of our leech-gathering success is due to the weather. A steady drizzle falls every hour and is broken only by the sudden chaos of a sky-splitting downpour. It’s the leechy weather we’ve been waiting for. The conditions make surveying in this up-and-down terrain particularly demanding. Our hands search for purchase on slick rock surfaces, our feet disappear in mires of muck, we are always cold and wet. The field conditions begin to wear on the team. Our energy is draining away daily. But we are getting results. If we can find the strength to finish this expedition strong I feel that our efforts will be rewarded. I am confident that here, in a remote corner of the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve, animals like Saola and Annamite dark muntjac, the rarest of the rare, still roam.

Leech close up

Leech close up

Anh Thanh leading the way through thick jungle

Anh Thanh leading the way through thick jungle

Dark jungle

We grasp onto anything that we can: tree roots, branches, saplings, rocks. Anything that will hold our weight as we stagger up the mountain. The progress is slow: one hour ascent has taken us only three hundred meters from our campsite. When we do reach the top of the mountain I collapse to the ground. Usually on difficult hikes my legs are burning but this time my arms ache instead. I look down to the way we had come: it is a straight drop broken only by rocky projections and patches of scrubby vegetation. We had literally pulled ourselves up a near-vertical face. This was the hike we would have to do each day to get out of the ravine. I asked myself: Is it worth it? I looked at the jungle scene around me and smiled. A wall of vegetation surrounded us—it almost felt as if the thick and thorny tangle was keeping us prisoner. Then why was I smiling? Because this was exactly the kind of forest where the Katu said large mammals still roamed, including endangered species like Saola and bear. This jungle was going to be hell to work in but it looked promising: remote, dark, primeval-feeling, it could be a last stronghold for the species I was searching for. After a five minute rest we stumbled to our feet and pressed on.

It didn’t take long to see our first sign. Etched into the mud were two hoof prints. Their edges were still sharp, indicating that the animal that made them had stood where we were standing only hours before. We identified the tracks as serow. The fact that this large goat-antelope was living on these slopes gave me hope that rarer endemic ungulates might still be found here. Then two hours later we came across a startling discovery: claw marks, each one two inches long, engraved into the side of a tree. It was only the third time I have encountered bear sign in Vietnam. The marks were relatively new, having been made sometime in the spring when the bees produced honey. I imagined the scene: a hulking black mass of muscle scrambling up forty feet of tree to fight off a swarm of furious bees and snatch its surgery reward. That such spectacles still occurred at all in Central Vietnam was amazing: both bear species have been hunted almost to extinction for the illegal wildlife trade. It was an indication that this area had less hunting pressure than other areas in this landscape: when the poachers settle in, large carnivores, which sit at the top of the trophic pyramid and have naturally low population densities, are usually the first to go. Months before I had come across fresh bear sign in a remote region near the Laos border. Sign surveys and camera trapping showed that area to be particularly rich in wildlife. Had we now stumbled upon another hotspot? The idea was intriguing. Only time would tell—for a complete picture of the mammalian biodiversity in this area we’d have to wait for the leeches to reveal their secrets.

Dark jungle

Dark jungle

Bear claw marks on tree

Bear claw marks on tree

 

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