A glimpse

We crept silently through a thorny tangle of vines. Hung, my guide, put his finger to his lips and ushered me to the base of a towering fig tree. I could hear noises twenty feet in front of me. “Aaaarrrugh! Aaaarrrugh!” The grunts were deep and belly-rumbling. I peeked around the trunk and saw a group of wild pigs. Heads-down, snouts-snuffling, teeth-clattering, they were churning up the ground looking for roots. I asked Hung to pass me my camera. He handed it to me and I tried to reposition for a better shot. But I must have made a noise because in that instant there was an explosion of hair and hooves—and then silence. I turned back to Hung. We were both beaming. It isn’t uncommon to come across wild pig sign in the forest but to actually see them is almost unheard of. There was no doubt in my mind that we were in one of the few wildlife paradises left in central Vietnam. Earlier that day we had seen red-shanked douc (Pygathrix nemaeus), a langur found only in the Annamites and widely regarded as the most beautiful primate species in the world. The day before we had heard muntjac barking in the distance. And perhaps our most amazing find: fresh bear claw marks on several trees. This large carnivore is a target for the wildlife trade and has been almost completely wiped out in Vietnam. Yet it survives here. If bears and muntjac live in this area what else remains hidden in this jungle sanctuary? We were in a wildlife hotspot. This was good country—perhaps the last of its kind in this region. Even better was the fact that we were collecting leeches. Lots of them. These were the conditions I had been praying for. At the back of my mind I worried that it was too good to last.

And so it was. We worked for three days. Each day we saw more wildlife and animal sign than the day before. We were collecting so many leeches that we were running out of tubes. It was a good problem to have, but it was a problem nonetheless, and one of the Forest Guards graciously offered to hike to the top of a mountain and call WWF to request that they send more tubes to us. He did. But he also got disturbing news: a typhoon was sweeping across central Vietnam. The WWF office in Hue was requesting that we get out of the forest as soon as possible. If we didn’t we could get stranded—or worse. I knew that people died in flash floods here. In fact, we had had a close call of our own on the last trip. And yet while I was not anxious for a repeat of our experience in Bach Ma, I was reluctant to leave. We were finally getting data in an area that had wildlife. This was exactly the type of work that I had come to Vietnam to do. I was convinced that if we were going to find some of the rare mammal species that lived in these jungles this was where we would have success. We only needed to collect large numbers of leeches, which we were doing. It was perfect. And now the expedition had folded almost as soon as it had begun. We hiked out early on the fourth morning. I didn’t say anything on the hike back to headquarters—partly because the cold rain had numbed my lips, partly because I felt so discouraged. With each muddy step my spirits sank further. I tried to tell myself that we would come back to this area and that the next trip would be different. At times I even half believed it.

Bear claw marks on a tree
Bear claw marks on a tree

One thought on “A glimpse”

  1. Wow! To see a red-shanked douc langur! Just yesterday I had a student turn in a report on the rainforest with a picture of that primate. It really is beautiful. Keep up the good work Andrew. I hope you get to return to the forest you had to abandon due to the monsoon! Sounds like you really were in “Naturalist Heaven”!

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