Saola ghosts

After a hurried breakfast Mr. Tren leads me to a hut at the far end of the village. We greet the owner and enter. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. When they do I see a typical Katu dwelling: Two beds, made of wooden planks, stand in opposite corners. In another corner there is a cooking fire, a cluster of pots and pans, and spices that have no English names. The walls are covered with an assortment of pictures: some, torn from magazines, show pale-skinned models and favorite football players, others are polaroid-type photographs of family members and friends. And then I see it: a skull hanging on the opposite wall that is unmistakably Saola. The tell-tale sign: long, smooth, midnight-black horns. In front of me is physical proof of an animal that has become to many people more myth than reality.

Mr. Tren grins and claps me on the shoulder. Soong soor, he says, giving the Katu name for Saola. I gaze at the trophy before me. The horns are unusually long: they are almost three feet in length and the tips are painfully sharp to the touch. Mr. Tren explains, in a businesslike manner, that this Saola is between thirty and forty years old, killed before the reserves were established, or even before the outside world knew of the animals existence. He wants to make sure that I don’t suspect him of recent poaching. I immediately ease his concerns. Then, as I stand admiring the skull, he tells me what he knows about this magnificent animal. According to him Saola live only in the deepest forest. He says that it is usually solitary but Katu hunters have occasionally seen them in pairs. Most interesting, from my perspective, is his indication that the Saola marks its territory with secretions from glands on its face. The Saola does, in fact, have some of the largest maxillary glands in the mammalian kingdom, and this detail leads me to believe that Mr. Tren knows Saola.

Saola trophy
Saola trophy

Then he pulls me away. I think: But I’m not done yet. I have only taken a few pictures. Nonetheless I follow. To my surprise he takes me to a second Saola skull hanging a few feet away. It is fire-blackened and nestled in a dark shadow, which is why I missed it. The second Saola appears to have been a younger animal. The horns are shorter. They also diverge more than the horns of the first Saola and I wonder if this trait is sex-specific. I spend several minutes marveling at both specimens. Then I snap out of my reverie and begin taking pictures and measurements. Mr. Tren and the owner both stand in the background and observe my every action. At one point they take the first Saola down and place it in my hands. It’s difficult to describe my feelings at this moment. Part of me was the introspective adventurer: Only a handful of Western biologists have ever held Saola horns and for me this was a dream come true. It is also the closest I have ever come to the elusive animal that is largely responsible for bringing me halfway around the world. Part of me was the practical biologist: I noted with fascination how different the anatomical features of the Saola are from any other bovid. It’s one thing to read this in a stuffy scientific article, quite another to see the evidence firsthand. Evolutionary questions flooded my mind. Part of me was the concerned conservationist: As I gazed into the hauntingly hollow eye sockets I wondered if I would see this species slip into extinction within my lifetime. Unless immediate actions are taken the answer is almost certainly yes.

“Andrew!” Thien jolted me to attention. He had come into the hut with his backpack shouldered. I knew that meant that it was time to go. I handed the Saola skull back to Mr. Tren and thanked both men. Then we left. We had a long day of hiking ahead of us. We were going into one of the darkest corners of the Annamites—a place where the Katu said Saola still lived.

Saola trophy
Saola trophy

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