Studying the rare and endangered animals of the Annamites.

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Yellow-throated marten

If I was to name, preferably at some sort of ecological-metaphorical gunpoint, the hands-down slickest small carnivore in the Annamites, odds are I would name the yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula). Sure, sure, on some days Owston’s civet (Chrotogale owstoni) would get the nod, but I like to think that, on average, this jungle phantom would get my vote. The yellow-throated marten is a medium-sized carnivore closely related to ferrets and weasels. It’s long, streamlined body, which includes a tail more than half its body length, belies a powerfully built physique. The most striking aspect of its appearance is its unique coat coloring: a chocolate-colored head abruptly gives way to a burnished golden body that then fades again into dark hind legs and tail. But even within this general pattern there is subtle variation: look closely and you can see that the feet shine a deep coal black and that the hair on the back of the neck burn a brighter gold that is tinged with orange overtones. This is a predator that is as visually arresting as it is ecologically stunning. Its muscular body was built to take down any small prey unfortunate enough to cross paths with it: from mice to rabbits to lizards to snakes to frogs to ground-dwelling birds, almost anything is fair game. It has even been reported to feed on small ungulates, particularly in the northern parts of its range. It’s a good thing that yellow-throated martens don’t grow to be the size of tigers, or else we’d all be in trouble. This varied and adaptable diet partly explains the diverse habitats where it lives and its wide distribution. The yellow-throated martin ranges from the cold dry forests of Pakistan to the wind-swept taiga of the Russian Far East to the subtropical forests of China and down into the tropical jungles of Indochina and the Sunda shelf. And of course, it is found in the Annamite forests that I call home.

Wherever it is found, the yellow-throated marten is essentially a forest species. Because large amounts of its habitat have been lost, especially in Southeast Asia, which in recent decades has experienced the most rapid rate of deforestation in the world, it is likely that populations have declined. In heavily hunted areas, which includes large sections of Laos and Vietnam, populations are probably well below carrying capacity. However, unlike other small carnivores we’ve covered in Species Spotlight, such as the large Indian civet or marbled cat, the yellow-throated marten is still faring well overall. Stable populations exist in a number of protected areas across several Asian countries. Because of this the yellow-throated marten is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern. It’s satisfying to know that, unlike many of the species that roam the Annamite jungles, this small carnivore is doing OK from a conservation standpoint, and will likely be stalking these forests for many years to come.

I always hope that I’ll glimpse a yellow-throated marten during my fieldwork: a brief flash of auburn and ebony darting into the foliage. Alas, so far it hasn’t happened, though I remain hopeful that if I spend enough time wandering around the jungles here I will be rewarded with a sighting. But I have experienced the next best thing: a stunning photo taken by a camera trap that I set deep in the jungles of Laos. The photo, a black and white infrared image, is shown below. It’s one of the most spectacular camera trap photos I’ve ever gotten, whether from the jungles of Southeast Asia, or from my earlier work in South America. There is something beautiful and haunting in it. It’s indescribable, so I won’t even try. Just take a look for yourself.

Yellow-throated marten

Yellow-throated marten

Camera trap photo of a yellow-throated marten

Camera trap photo of a yellow-throated marten

A note on chronology

I dislike adding “filler” blog posts, but the aesthetic evil of a short note seems rather necessary, I’m afraid, to remind everyone about the timeline over which I’ve been writing. I’ve received a few “get-well-soon” messages from readers who fear that I am holed up in a Vietnamese hospital on the verge of gasping my last breath. I am in Vietnam, but rest assured, I’m feeling strong as an ox (or water buffalo?). The events I’ve just recounted happened last winter during a long fieldwork stint working with WWF. Of course, the long delay between happening and writing (almost one year!) is inexcusable. Please accept my apologies. All I can say is that, between finishing my Master’s degree at the University of Texas in the spring, then doing surveys in Laos early last summer, then moving to Berlin to start a new PhD program, then moving to Vietnam to start further fieldwork . . . I’ve been busy. But I am slowly getting caught back up with the blog. Next step: to write about my fieldwork in Laos this summer. Then we’ll be caught up to the present. And just in time, too: I start a new project in central Vietnam soon. Stay tuned for more posts! And don’t forget to spread the word to other potential readers. I find myself writing more frequently when I know people are reading.

Pit viper from Laos

Pit viper from Laos

End

An argument had broken out. On one side: me. On the other side: everyone else. In my current state I should have been easy pickings. But I was firm on this point: I would not be carried out of the forest. I was going to walk, or at least hobble, out. The two Katu guides beside me dropped the makeshift sling they had prepared: a pole, fashioned from a felled tree, with a hammock attached. They shook their heads, thinking, I am sure, that the knock on the head I had taken the night before had finally done the foreigner in. Perhaps they were right. I wasn’t thinking clearly. But there was reasoning in my defiance. It was an issue of pride. I felt like the fieldwork, the jungle, had finally beaten me. As I lay by the fire, I decided that I would leave on my own terms. In hindsight, this line-in-the-sand business strikes me as illogical, even a trifle stagey. But after weeks of jungle living, there existed a sense of competition between myself, on one hand, and the forest, on the other, which had taken on a dark persona of its own. I couldn’t let it win. I struggled to my feet. One of the guides gripped my right elbow to steady my uncertain steps. We set off.

The following three hours were some of the longest of my life. The rain didn’t stop. The quiet mountain stream we had hiked in on was now a frothing torrent, making passage difficult and dangerous. However, going along the river was still the quickest way out. It would take many hours more to hack our way through the jungle. We followed the river. The water was cold. Even in the shallow areas it was waist-deep, and at times the current lapped over our shoulders. The constant cold was causing my legs to go numb, and I moved with stiff and jerky motions, like a poorly-directed marionette. Besides the cold, I was drunk with pain and fatigue. All of my effort was focused on staying conscious. Every few minutes I felt myself drifting into tunnels of blackness. When that happened I would try to jolt myself to attention. If that failed, the guide at my side would shake me awake. All the time marching marching marching, slogging through the rain and the mud.

I thought we would never make it to the road. But we did. There was the asphalt, shining slick like the surface of a river frozen in time. I felt like collapsing. Instead, we trudged down the road and took shelter in a Katu hut, which was really no more than a collection planks held loosely together in the shape of a house. It kept out the rain, but the cold bit through the slats, chilling me to the core. I curled up on the floor by the fire. For the first time that day I thought about more than just survival. I reflected on the situation, and was consumed by disappointment. I hadn’t been strong enough to finish the survey. I hadn’t been strong enough to complete the work. I might have blown my best chance at finding Saola, the species that had drawn me to these jungles. I had failed. But I would be back. Not anytime soon, since I had to leave in a week to go back to the US. But this wasn’t the end: it was only the beginning of the journey.

The ambulance pulled up with sirens blaring. The Forest Guards loaded me in the back and we set off. I watched the forest disappear into the distance.

I watched the forest disappear.

I watched the forest disappear.

Collapse

We stumbled back into camp. It had been another draining day. The temperature had dropped and it was still raining. A cold, steady, heavy rain with dime-sized drops that stung the exposed skin. I wondered if this survey was worth the effort. The area looked promising, with abundant ungulate feeding sign, but we weren’t finding leeches. Apparently the ectoparasites had more sense than we did. They had called it quits, retreating, I would guess, back into the dark confines of the leaf litter. They may not have an advanced central nervous system, but they were smarter, I thought, than the team of two-legged bipeds that was hunting them. We dropped our gear to the ground and hunkered around the campfire. I felt terrible. My fever was raging. My thoughts were jumbled. I looked at our team. They were miserable. For some reason the image called to mind the lines of a war poem I had read years ago. Bent double, like old beggars under sacks / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge. Was that right? Or was I misremembering the lines? It didn’t matter. Either way, I thought to myself, things must be pretty bad if the current state of affairs was best summarized by a trench-warfare poet. Or maybe I was just being melodramatic. Yes, that was probably it. After a few hours rest I would be fine. I trudged back to my hammock, peeled off my wet clothes, and crawled into my sleeping bag. I was still shaking.

I woke up in the middle of the night with pain shooting through my abdomen. It felt like white-hot shards of shrapnel were tearing through my midsection. I tried to call out, but the sound died in my throat. All I could manage was a dried rasping that was inaudible over the rain. I cringed as another attack jolted through me. It was beyond any pain I had experienced. I tried to call out again but it was no use. I was too weak, and the rain was too loud, hitting the tarp with such force that it sounded like the snarling of a snare drum. I was awake now. For wide-eyed awakeness, these abdominal cramps were better than the strongest Vietnamese cap he sua da one could buy. I tried to clear my head. I reasoned that, with enough painkillers and a muffled pillow to scream in to, I could handle the pain, but I didn’t think I could stand the cold much longer. I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and stumbled to the campfire. I made it halfway there before collapsing.

When I came to I saw a halo of concerned expressions hovering above me. The image was blurred and distorted, as though I was underwater looking up at a group of poolside faces. Someone was supporting my head, which, judging by the throbbing in my right temple, had taken a hard knock. After that my memories get fuzzy. Perhaps that’s just as well. I remember waking up in agonizing pain, screaming so loudly that I felt my lungs would burst, then passing out. Repeat. It must have been quite a night, because when I became fully conscious again at daybreak, the team looked equal parts concerned and surprised that I had made it through. Den, in particular, looked as if he was staring at a half-ghost. I curled up next to the fire and listened as the team discussed what to do. Den came over and told me that they had to get me out of the forest. Now. I was going to be evacuated.

Anh Thanh searching for leeches

Anh Thanh searching for leeches during a rare break in the rain

Cold

It was cold. Deep down, get beneath your skin, hit you in the gut cold. The kind of cold that fills your lungs with an icy fire every time you inhale. I lay in my hammock. I had on every item of clothing I had brought, and yet I couldn’t stop shivering. Part of the shivering was due to fever. It had been a long and sleepless night. I was dazed and disoriented. A flood of thoughts raced incoherently through my head. I should have bought a thermometer to check how high my temperature was but what good would it do in the end other than give me a number it wouldn’t solve the problem there was nothing I could do this far from medical facilities and why was I working in a place where it was so cold I chose Vietnam partly because Texan that I am it was a tropical country but here I was colder than I have ever been in my life and how was I going to keep pushing myself in this punishing landscape when I felt so run-down bone-tired exhausted?

An com!” came the morning call to breakfast. I snapped to attention. I had no appetite but knew that if I didn’t eat I would be weaker than I already was. I wrapped myself up in my sleeping bag and hobbled to the campfire. Our team sat in a circle, hunched over, silent. Usually there was laughter and joking at the start of the day but now the only sound was the pattering of rain on the tarp overhead: a rhythmic tattoo that seemed like it would never end. Anh Thanh handed me a bowl of rice and cold canned pork. Then, seeing how miserable I was, he kindled the fire, turning the glowing embers first into a flickering flame, then a blaze. The warmth struck me full in the face. It helped, but I still couldn’t stop shaking. We ate in silence. The dull sound of chopsticks scraping against plastic bowls was just audible over the rain. Halfway through the meal I announced that we would rest for one hour before starting the fieldwork. It was met with grunts of approval: no one was in a hurry to get into the forest. I couldn’t blame them. After eating we retreated to our individual hammocks. I lay on my side, pushing my legs up into my chest, making myself as compact as possible. An hour passed by in only a few minutes—or so it seemed to me when my watch alarm went off. It took all my will power to sit up in my hammock. Then I slipped on soggy leech socks and stood up. I was uncertain on my feet. I asked Anh Thanh to cut a walking stick for me. Perhaps, I reasoned, if I had one good walking stick it might make up for two unsteady legs. We gathered under the tarp, checking supplies one more time, then set off into the jungle. My last thought before leaving the safety of the campsite was that it was going to be a long day. And cold.

View from our campsite

View from our campsite

Saola jungle

It wasn’t hard to imagine a Saola stalking this remote jungle sanctuary. The area was inaccessible, with steep cliffs and deep chasms, blanketed in dense tropical vegetation. The forest was excellent. Mature trees, including some behemoths over one hundred feet tall, indicated an area that was relatively undisturbed by logging. It seemed to be relatively undisturbed by people as well: in our three days surveying so far we had seen no evidence of humans. No snares, no discarded tins of canned food, no blackened charcoal heaps from burnt-out campfires. We had, on the other hand, seen plenty of ungulate sign. Hoof marks etched deep into the mud. Most of the prints were serow, no doubt, but I couldn’t help wondering if one or two could be Saola. Could we be stepping in the footprints of the same animal that had been camera trapped? It was wishful thinking, a long shot given the rarity of Saola relative to other ungulates in the area, and yet I couldn’t get that thought out of mind. It was one of those small pick-me-ups that kept me going during even the worst moments of fieldwork. And this field expedition was shaping up to be one for the record books. It was turning cold. Worse, the rains had started, and there was no sign that they would let up any time soon. My strength was zapped and I ached all over. I felt, I remember thinking, rather as if I had been run over by a train (or, in the part of the world, perhaps a water buffalo would make for a more apt analogy). But the fieldwork had to get done. I plodded on.

Oddly, we weren’t finding many leeches, despite the constant rain, which usually made for ideal leech-hunting conditions. My guess was that the leeches had become less active with the coming winter weather. When we did find a leech, it moved sluggishly, wobbling through the leaf litter as if it has drunk too much rice wine. Still, I told myself, in the search for rare species it was not just how many leeches we found, but where we found them. One hundred leeches in a good area could yield more than one thousand leeches in a hunted-out section of forest. And if the field sign was any indication, we were in an ideal place for Annamite ungulates. We worked on through the rain. The forest had become a mire of muck and mud. We trudged on, eyes peeled to the forest floor, alert to any movement that would betray a leech. It was miserable fieldwork. Never in my life have I been so wet and cold. I wondered how much longer I could last, and I felt my spirits sink. Nonetheless, at times we came across spectacular jungle scenes, sights unlike any I had ever witnessed, and when we did it seemed to lift the spirits of the group—myself included. On every fourth or fifth ridge we found high waterfalls cascading down river-smoothed stone. It was the raw power and beauty of nature distilled into a single image. One couldn’t help but marvel. At moments like this I was reminded, despite the wretched working conditions, how lucky I was to be in this jungle. It held awe-inspiring terrain. And perhaps the last of the Saola.

Excellent forest

Excellent forest

Den, a WWF colleague, in front of a waterfall

Den, a WWF colleague, in front of a waterfall

Back into the wild

Enthusiasm is a powerful drug: God knows how many times I’ve used it to slog up the last hundred feet of a mountain, or claw my way through a wall of impenetrable jungle. Now my enthusiasm for going into the one place where we knew a Saola existed trumped everything else in my life. I was obsessed with the idea of getting into that patch of forest. I was obsessed by the idea of being so close to Saola. I still felt sick, but as I had done so often before, I pushed any health considerations aside. The work had to get done. Besides, I told myself, using an internal dialogue that could have been lifted straight from a Hemingway novel, this was tough work, and if you can’t tough it out you shouldn’t be here. I began preparing for the survey. Again, I spread my field gear out in my hotel room, which made it look rather like the forgotten warehouse of a secondhand Army supply store. Again, I looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t look any better than I had a few days before, and I certainly looked worse than any item in my field kit. But I was going to go into the field. I had to go into the field. An opportunity like this, on the heels of a recent Saola photograph, might not come again.

The WWF car lumbered through the Vietnamese countryside: a mechanical beast that seemed oddly out of place in the midst of the hulking slate-gray water buffalos that dotted the landscape. Typical scenes of country life flashed through the window: wooden shacks propped up alongside the road selling cigarettes and soda, mangy dogs lounging in the midday sun, endless rice fields stretching into the distance, peopled by conical-hat-wearing women, their figures quaking and quivering in the undulating heat waves. We drove on. Gradually the rice fields were replaced by shrubby vegetation and then secondary-growth Cecropia trees and then forest. It was hard to believe that this tropical forest—one of the most unexplored jungles on the planet—existed in such close proximity to a sea of rice paddies. We ground to a halt. A group of WWF forest guards sat at the edge of the road. I snatched my field pack from the back seat and we set off.

It felt good to be back in the jungle. Even after such a short time back in civilization, I had missed the forest. The humid air, sweet-smelling and sticky from rotting vegetation, the leaf-dappled sunlight that spilled through the canopy overhead, the fact that everywhere you turned there was life. We hiked for several hours. To my surprise, Anh Thanh met us along the way. He would be our Forest Protection Department guide. It was nice to see him again. After our previous work together I’d begun to think of him more as a friend or uncle than simply another work colleague. Eventually we made it to the camp. I found an empty space under the tarp and collapsed. I was exhausted—more so than I should have been after a half-day hike. The terrain, for that matter, hadn’t even been that difficult: it was nothing like the up-and-down gorges that I had scrambled across in other parts of the region. I felt weak. Lungs burning, arms shaking, it was as if I had just completed a grueling field expedition, rather than just starting one. I found myself wondering if I would be able to finish the survey strong. I didn’t question whether I would be able to finish the survey at all.

Anh Thanh leading the way

Anh Thanh leading the way

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