Studying the rare and endangered animals of the Annamites.

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A forest full of dragons

The eye staring back at me was large and round and cold with a black pupil set into a flame-red iris that burned even in the warm tropical sunlight. It looked more like a precious stone than anything organic. It was set in a dull gray scaly skin that was sandpaper-rough to the touch. Above the eye were two demonic-looking spines: the first in a row that ran down the length of the lizard’s body. These spikes were a deterrent to any would-be predators: trying to wolf down this forest dragon must be like trying to swallow a spiked medieval mace. Not, of course, that I had any culinary intentions with this magnificent creature: I had only caught it so that I could take photographs and then take my time marveling at it. This was only the third time I had come across Acanthosaura natalia in my forest wanderings and I reveled in every second of what must be, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular of reptilian encounters.

Forest dragon

Forest dragon

It was my third encounter but would not be my last on this trip. In fact, our team came across the species several times over the course of the expedition. We had unknowingly entered a kingdom of dragons. And each encounter was unique. Though presumably the same species, there was, to my surprise, substantial phenotypic variation in the lizards that we came across. The naturalist in me wondered if the specimens I was labeling as Acanthosaura natalia might in fact be different species. One lizard was tarnished-gray, the color of a well-worn and scuffed suit of armor, while the next was a vivid yellowish-green. The most stunning was a juvenile specimen that we spotted scurrying up a tree trunk one morning while we were moving along a mountain stream. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a streak of red flash vertically to my right. Red? I thought. What is large and red in this jungle? I took a second look. It was small forest dragon. Yer, our local Katu guide, must have noticed the surprise on my face because in no time he scurried up the tree and caught the lizard. He brought it down. I was amazed. Never have I seen such an incredible reptile: its crimson head glowed with the neon ferocity one would expect to find on the signs that light up the streets of Saigon at night. The twin red spikes crowning its head gave it a devilish demeanor. I picked it up between thumb and forefinger and gazed at it in wonder for what must have been several minutes. At last Yer placed his hand on my shoulder and said that we had much work to do and that it was time to move on. He was right. I let the lizard scamper back into the jungle. It was gone. But its fire-red image remained burned into my memory.

Red forest dragon

Red forest dragon

Red forest dragon

Red forest dragon

Leeches and cameras

After three days we had fallen into a regular pattern. To cover more ground we split the group up into two teams. I led one team. Khamhou, a Lao national working for WWF, led the second team. From our campsite we set out in daylong hikes that meandered towards the Vietnam border and then led back again to our campsite. We had two main goals: First, to collect as many leeches as possible, in the hope of detecting rare species in the area, which potentially included Saola. Second, to search for suitable camera trap locations. The objective of the camera trapping wasn’t to detect Saola—we had far too few cameras and too little time to attempt that. Rather, it would allow us insight into the general ungulate community, which could in turn give us insight into the likelihood that Saola persisted in this area. If, the thinking goes, there were other ungulates there, like Large-antlered muntjac and sambar, there might be Saola. A complete ungulate community would at least historically have included Saola. A trashed community might only contain a handful of the more common species. The camera traps would give us insight into this hidden aspect of Annamites jungle life. So, while snatching leeches from nearby vegetation—or from ourselves—we scoured the streams and hillsides for good camera trap locations. We looked for recent ungulate sign: hoofprints and bite marks on vegetation. Anything that would indicate that one of the elusive even-toed animals we were searching for had been at that spot.

The terrain was difficult. Not as hard as some of the worse parts of the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve where I had worked in the past, but it wasn’t an easy stroll through the woods either. We clambered, hand over hand, up steep rocky chasms, sometimes going over near-vertical faces: steep cliff sides that were slippery-slick with rain and strewn with loose stones. I kicked myself for not having the foresight to bring climbing rope with me. Instead, we used organic climbing rope: thick vines that we cut from nearby trees and tossed up or lowered down the vertical places. I doubt that our “ropes” would have passes stateside safety inspections. The going was tough, but that was OK with me because we were making progress. By hugging the small mountain streams that wound through this rocky landscape we were getting modest leech numbers: the leeches, it turned out, were not on the mountain trails, but they could be found on the vegetation near fast-flowing water. The numbers weren’t spectacular, but at almost two hundred leeches per day per team, it wasn’t a bad haul. Just as important, to me, was that we finding what appeared to be good camera trap locations: places where Annamite ungulates had stopped to tear into a juicy leaf or succulent shoot. I got goosebumps thinking about the photos we would get in the coming months from these cameras. On this trip perhaps more than any other I felt like I was going to get a glimpse of the mammals that roamed these dark jungles.

Kai setting a camera trap

Kai setting a camera trap

Going up steep terrain

Going up steep terrain

Morning singing

I opened my eyes and peeked out of my hammock. A faint orange glow lit the camp scene. At first I thought it was the first rays of sunlight spilling over the mountain ridge but then I realized that the glow came from the campfire. Two figures, hazy in the rising smoke, were hunched over the flames, stirring a large metal pot. They sang softly as they worked. I looked at my watch. It was just 5:00 am. It was odd that I would wake up before breakfast. Something must have woken me up. Yes, I thought, something had jolted me awake. A noise. But what? Was it the singing of the local guides? Or the scraping of the spoon against the pot as they stirred the rice? Then I heard it: A long, mournful call that reverberated through the forest. It sounded almost human but at the same time I could tell that it was not. It was haunting and plangent. The call started out low and then crescendoed to a high-pitched howl that peaked with the energy of a taught violin string on the verge of snapping and then just as it seemed that it would split open the still-dark sky it faded back into nothingness and the forest was silent again. For a few seconds I lay in my hammock, wide-eyed awake now, staring into the blackness of the surrounding jungle. I couldn’t believe my ears, or my luck. I had just heard gibbons singing for the first time.

I wasn’t going to go back to sleep now. I climbed out of my hammock and sat down by the fire. Kaikeo and Knin smiled. They had boiled water in a bamboo stem. Kaikeo handed it to me and I prepared a cup of instant coffee. I sat by the fire, sipping the coffee, wondering if the call would come again. It seemed too otherworldly to be real. When it did come I got goosebumps. I was awe-struck. Then the naturalist part of my brain kicked in and I tried to remember all that I could about the gibbons that lived in the Annamites. All species in this area were from the Nomascus genus, known as crested gibbons because of the long tuft of facial hair that runs along the cheek. I remembered reading somewhere that the early morning singing is often the back and forth calling between mated male—female pair, and that this duet is believed be a territorial display. And of course I knew that all gibbons in the Annamites were threatened due to hunting and habitat loss. These and other facts floated through my still-sleepy head. But then the naturalist part of my brain shut off and I let myself fall back into rapt wonder. I marveled, without the clutter of mental fact-finding, at the beauty of the singing echoing through the treetops. I had learned long ago to savor moments like this on a visceral level. And so I did.

Crested gibbon

Crested gibbon

Eyes in the forest

Imagine that you are a wildlife biologist and you’ve been given a dozen pairs of eyes that you can place anywhere in the forest to watch wildlife for you. You can find a good area, put them down, then walk away. These eyes are unblinking and all-seeing. They’re open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They don’t get tired and bloodshot. They don’t need to be propped open with toothpicks after hours of empty staring. They don’t need glasses or contacts. And they rarely miss an animal. Sound too good to be true? Well, if they eyes are attached to the rest of a Homo sapien, then it is. People, with all their glorious imperfections, are not well equipped to sit in one place for hours or days or weeks on end looking for wildlife. People have to do things like eat and sleep. But fortunately there is a technological solution: the camera trap.

Camera trap

Camera trap

A camera trap is a just a camera with a sensor that takes a picture when the sensor is tripped. There are as many types of camera traps as there are types of motorbikes cram-jammed onto the crowded streets of Hanoi. Although they come in an almost endless variety of shapes and sizes, the basic premise is the same for every camera: the sensor is triggered and a photo is taken. It should come as no surprise that camera traps have revolutionized wildlife surveys around the world. Biologists can use camera traps to gather large amounts of data over large spatial and temporal scales for a large number of species. Camera traps are especially useful for studying rare or elusive animals. I could give a long list of rare species that have been studied using camera traps, from pygmy hippos to Asiatic cheetahs to Javan rhinos, but a few examples from my own patch of woods, the Annamites, will suffice: To date, camera traps have given biologists glimpses of Large-antlered muntjac, dark muntjac, striped rabbit, and the jewel of the Annamites—the Saola. In fact, the rediscovery of the Saola in Vietnam last year was accomplished by a camera trap photo. Take another look at that picture. And marvel at the fact that we have a photograph of one of the rarest and most elusive species on the planet.

I was excited to have camera traps for the current survey. I had a decent number at my disposal: WWF had loaned me more than twenty cameras, and Global Wildlife Conservation had given me five. Never before had I had so many cameras to use for a survey. My goal was to use the cameras to assess the status of the ungulate community in Xe Sap. As I noted in my previous post, one way to do this is by searching for jungle sign, mainly hoofprints. But there are drawbacks to this method. First, ungulate hoofprints are difficult to come by in the limestone-strewn mountains of Laos and Vietnam because the ground is so rocky. More problematic is the fact that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to identify the prints to species. All muntjac prints, for example, look the same, so there is no way to tell if the print was made from a common muntjac or the rare Large-antlered muntjac. A clear camera trap photo is, on the other hand, unambiguous. More significant, however, was our ability to have multiple sets of eyes operational over a wide area for the next few months. I would have to leave Xe Sap in a couple weeks. But my work would continue. While I was back in America, the cameras that I set would continue taking photos. And in the end they would provide me with an intimate portrait of the ungulates that roamed this remote jungle. They would help me unlock the biological secrets of the Annamites.

Endemic Annamite mammals caught on camera

Endemic Annamite mammals caught on camera

Back into the jungle

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.

Tiger leech

Tiger leech

Steep terrain

Steep terrain

First camp

We woke early on the morning of May 21 and assembled in the barren-earth courtyard. Khamhou, our WWF representative, gave last minute orders to the porters. His voice was soft, stripped of any commanding quality, barely audible above the background noise of a Katu village at daybreak. And yet when he spoke people listened. We finished packing the supplies. Then we set off on motorbikes down a dirt road rutted with well-worn tired tracks etched deep into the hard red clay. I marveled at the fact that there was a road running through the protected area, opening this biologically spectacular piece of jungle real estate to easy access from nearby border towns in Vietnam, opening it to an untold number of poachers. But, as is typical of every other place I have been in Southeast Asia, infrastructure development takes priority over wildlife protection. I was dismayed but not surprised. After half an hour we stopped. I jumped off the motorbike, shouldered my pack, and we stepped off the road and into the forest. We hiked for several hours. In the early afternoon we came to an ideal camping spot: an open flat area beside a small stream. I wanted to push further into the jungle but the team insisted we stop here, claiming that there would be no other suitable locations upriver. I fished the topographical map out of my backpack and poured over its kaleidoscopic contour lines. They were right. If we had a smaller team it would have been possible to go deeper into the forest. But at thirteen members we were a large group, and we needed a sizeable camping spot. I reluctantly agreed. The guides began making camp: they cleared the area of brush with their machetes and cut poles that they then used to construct the skeleton of our makeshift shelter. Within an hour they had finished. It was, I remember thinking as I came back from gathering firewood, a nice-looking camp.

We spent the afternoon resting. We would need all our strength for the upcoming expedition. The guides played cards around the smoldering embers of a campfire, laughing and chatting and smoking their long homemade Katu pipes. I read in my hammock and then poked around the campsite. Sometimes, in my hyper-focused surveys, which are directed towards understanding large mammal status and distribution, I overlook the smaller things, especially the arthropods. But make no mistake: the insects, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes that roam the leaf litter are no less spectacular than other taxa. Smaller, yes. But just as awe-inspiring. Breaks like this are my chance to explore this often-overlooked dimension of tropical forest biodiversity. Within minutes I had snapped photos of black velvet-winged damselflies, flame-colored Hemiptera, and an emerald beetle that glowed as if it had been dipped in phosphorescent paint. At one point I stumbled across a giant walking stick that moved with a jerky-swaying motion meant to mimic a twig waving in the wind. It was a species I had never encountered before—a poignant reminder of the wonders and mysteries in the jungles of the Central Annamites.

First camp in Xe Sap

First camp in Xe Sap

Amazing arthropods

Amazing arthropods

Assembling the team

At Ban Kalo we assembled our complete team. The group that had walked in included myself, Kai, and Son—a group that I referred to as the “Rough Hikers,” for no other reason than because I was, at the time, reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He stormed San Juan Hill on a horse, we had stormed the southern Laos highlands on foot. The rest of the team included a WWF employee, Khamhou, who had traveled to the village by a different, northerly route, an Army representative, Sonxay, and five Katu people from Ban Kalo who would serve as our guides. I immediately struck it off with Sonxay. He was medium-height, with a round face, almond-shaped eyes, and a mop of thick black hair that was usually covered in a camo-colored hat. I was struck by the fact that he was always smiling. But, even more than that, I had the impression that he would be smiling even in the thick of it—during the worst that jungle life had to offer. I would later be proven right. His toothy grin and boisterous laugh seemed to strike an odd discord with the battered AK-47 that never left his side. It was the same disharmony I felt when I stumbled across remnants of war in the jungle. It was also a poignant reminder that that area we were working in was more dangerous than the areas in Vietnam where most of my work had occurred. This region of Laos had little influence from the central government. Law and order fell to the local villages, which meant, in reality, that it was scarce, and in some places it seemed almost nonexistent. It could be a bad area.

We spent the afternoon preparing supplies for the trip. As we sat in a circle filling leech tubes with buffer, I could sense the excitement that accompanies the start of a new survey. When we finished it was dark. I found a hammock downstairs and let myself become intoxicated by the night sounds that quivered on the humid-heavy air: Katu mixed with laughter and the burbling of water being drawn through hookah-style pipes, the echoing calls of tree frogs as they sang their otherworldly chorus, the crackling of firewood and the spluttering of oil as vegetables were fried over open flames. I enjoyed these last hours of village life. Tomorrow we would be in the jungle.

The team preparing supplies

The team preparing supplies

Sonxay

Sonxay

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