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?