New horizons

We arrived at our campsite just as the sun was sinking below the jagged teeth of the adjacent mountain ridge. Within minutes everything was dark. Fortunately a full moon was out, silvering the small creek-side spot we had chosen to build our camp. This was good luck, indeed, though the moonlight also transformed the surrounding vegetation into a web of vein-like shadows: everything (to me) looked like a potential snake. But I needn’t have worried. Within an hour we had built a bamboo shelter, collected firewood, and started rice boiling—all without any serpentine surprises. That would change later on in the trip, but I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. After a quick meal of rice and pork we crouched around the campfire and passed around a bowl of rice wine. For over an hour I sat lost in thought watching the flames dancing around slivers of bamboo. Before me was the opportunity of a lifetime: I leading an expedition into the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve, one of the last great strongholds for large mammal species in the Annamites, and a priority location for Saola. However, it was a major undertaking, and I wondered if I would be able to conduct the survey successfully. Numerous obstacles stood in our way: Some, like weather conditions, were out of our control. It was up to us to face others, including finding the personal and physical strength to face a punishing landscape day in day out. As I moved from the warmth of the campfire into the cold fabric of my hammock I wondered if I would be able to muster that strength. The fact that I was asking this at the beginning of an expedition unnerved me. But I would make it work—right? The answer to that question was simple: I would, unless I didn’t.

Before I drifted off to sleep I reflected on the journey that lay ahead. This was my first trip to the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve—an opportunity to explore new horizons. It was probably our best bet so far for finding the Saola. It was also one of my last attempts to survey this landscape in the near future: in late December I was traveling back to the United States. This trip was the second-to-last major survey I would be able to mount. We had to make it count. Personally, I was fighting to use every last scrap of time that I had left in Vietnam. But my own struggle was only a small part of the bigger picture. More importantly, we were fighting as a group to learn more about the large mammals living in these jungles so that we could protect them before it was too late. Never lose track of the bigger picture, I thought, slowly losing consciousness. My surveys and my PhD were small slices of a complex situation. But if you’re going to change anything in the world you have to start small—and passionately. That was the key: passion. I couldn’t forget that. Would I remember that in the morning? Probably not. But I might. I had to. Yes, I had to remember that. My thoughts were becoming incoherent now. I fell asleep with the jungle sounds echoing in my ears.

Mountains of Quang Nam
Mountains of Quang Nam

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