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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.
“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.
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?
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.
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.
It took three hours of up and down climbing to find a place flat enough to camp. I’d never seen terrain this steep before: searching for horizontal ground was like searching for Saola. We hiked along the base of a canyon. Sheer walls loomed on either side of us, blocking what little tropical sun filtered through the rainy season clouds. The jungle scene looked like an old black-and white grainy grey-tinted photograph. At four thirty in almost complete darkness we found an area beside the stream that was flat enough to build camp. It was dangerously close to the river and I worried about flash floods. But we had no choice: it was too late to keep searching and we were all tired, hungry, exhausted. We built camp, started a fire, and had a silent dinner. The night sounds of the jungle mixed with the dull sounds of chopsticks scraping against metal bowls. At seven o’clock we piled into our hammocks. Then the rains started. There was no gradual build-up, no slow crescendo: the skies opened and a thunderous downpour crashed into our camp. Through the mosquito netting of my hammock I saw a dark figure crouch by the fire. The strike of a match momentarily lit up an old, wizened, wrinkled face: it was Anh (uncle) Thanh, our Forest Protection Department guide, and the most experienced member of our expedition. He’s staying awake to watch the river, I thought. Should I join him? It would be nice to give him company. But I was too tired. I felt a ping of guilt as I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke to excited chatter. It was midnight. Everyone was huddled in a muddy circle near the hammocks. What was going on? I unzipped my sleeping bag and was shocked by how cold the night had become. Why weren’t they sitting by the fire? I looked down to where the campfire should be. Instead I saw rapids. The river was less than fifteen feet from our hammocks and the rain was still coming down hard. I sat down in the circle. Without prompting Anh Thanh said that the river was steadily rising and that I should make sure that my bag was packed in case we needed to leave. I shined my flashlight past my hammock: our camp backed up to an almost vertical rock face. I turned back to Thanh. And where are we going to go? I asked. He shrugged and replied that we would figure that out when the time came. He told me to go back to sleep. He would wake me if needed. I trudged back to my hammock. I tried to fall asleep but was wide-awake with worry. I climbed back out of my hammock and started toward the circle to join the guys but before I made it I noticed two large eyes glowing like cigarette ends in the beam of my flashlight: at my feet was a tree frog. I snatched my camera and began snapping pictures. One of the Katu guides noticed this and joked that we were all river refugees at this point. I thought about this for a moment, slipped on soggy shoes, wrapped myself in a raincoat, and began searching the vegetation around our campsite. It was full of frogs. Our small peninsula had indeed become an island refuge. For the next hour I photographed every amphibian I could find. It was the most amazing collection of frogs I have encountered. When I climbed back into my hammock I was inwardly beaming. Whatever happened in the coming hours this would be a night to remember. Sleep never came that night and we never had to evacuate. In the end everything had turned out for the best.
Against my better judgment I looked down: Below me was a 100 foot near-vertical drop that ended in a boulder-strewn river. I closed my eyes and imagined falling. I pictured myself crashing into a granite slab the size of a pickup truck. Then then I imagined the icy water squeezing me until my chest burst and carrying me to an unmapped location downstream. Yes, that would something to avoid. I felt my fingers clutch tighter to the slippery rock surface that I was clinging to. Over the din of a roaring waterfall my guide yelled words of encouragement. But I couldn’t make out what he said. I was frozen with fear. Slowly I crept along the ledge, this time not looking down. Maybe there was something, I thought, to the old saying that ignorance is bliss. If I tried hard enough I found myself not thinking about the river below. Four more steps to go. OK, now three, two, one . . . and safe. Until the next ledge. There were many more to come. I started to take out my camera to snap a picture but my guide scolded me sharply. “Do you want to take pictures or live through this?” he said. I replied that, although I wasn’t ready to see Ho Chi Minh just yet, I needed to document my trip for my readers. He scoffed. “I’m sure they would rather have you alive than have pictures.” So, for that matter, would I, if my vote counts. The man had a point. I managed to snap a few pictures during safer moments. But even during these relative lulls I remained in a state of shock. This was jungle unlike any that I had ever encountered before: Thick vegetation cascading down vertical slopes. As we hiked further into the ravine I wondered if I would be able to pull through the second phase of the expedition. And I wondered what had brought me to such treacherous terrain.
I knew the answer to the second question. On even the most rudimentary map one can see that this area is the most remote in the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve. Look at a digital elevation map and you can also tell that it is the most rugged. Both attributes make this piece of jungle real estate a prime location for large mammal surveys: In Vietnam animals persist in areas that poachers cannot access or are unwilling to work in. The forest compartment we were hiking into was a nightmare to travel to and in—and that’s why I wanted to survey here. Mr. Tren, the headman of the Katu village we had stayed in, provided further evidence that this would be an ideal location. Before we left he said that ungulate sign was abundant here and that it was one of the few places in Quang Nam that still held bears. If this last fact was true it would be a good sign indeed: the presence of large carnivores would indicate reduced hunting pressure. The only other place I had seen bear sign had been in the Hue Saola Nature Reserve in an area teeming with wildlife. I pressed Mr. Tren for more information. It was then that he told me that this was the area where he had last seen Saola sign: mon tuc leaves cropped close to the ground, saplings broken, musty paste smeared onto nearby vegetation from the animals’ large maxillary glands. I asked him how long ago this had been, expecting his answer to be measured in years, even decades. His reply: seven months. If Mr. Tren was correct then this cliff-ridden jungle hideaway still held one of the rarest ungulates on the planet. That thought alone was enough to keep me going during the toughest moments of the hike. It didn’t make it any easier or any less dangerous but it gave me added strength when we were going up a 90° rock face using roots and branches as anchor points or going down using vines as climbing rope. That thought latched onto me like a leech. That thought made it all worthwhile.