Green hell

Alexander “Sasha” Siemel, the famous hunter / explorer who spent several decades traveling through the Brazilian Amazon, once called that prime piece of jungle real estate a “Green Hell.” While I have the utmost respect for him, and consider him a personal hero of sorts, obviously old Sasha had never been to the Annamites. This isn’t to say that the Amazon rainforest is exactly a putting green—I spent a couple months wandering around the Peruvian lowland forests and the jungle there can be downright nasty at times. But no place I’ve been in Central or South American can compare with the Annamite jungles. And as I found out on my first morning of surveying the forests of the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve are some of the hardest in the region. This thorny, mountainous, strength-sapping bit of jungle was unlike anything I had ever come across before. The reason for this was simple: apart from having sixty-plus degree slopes the area was covered in a carpet of thick secondary growth. To travel through the landscape we had to use machetes to carve tunnels through solid walls of vegetation. Many times we were in jungle thick enough to make a treeshrew claustrophobic. Every step was a draining bush-whacking ordeal. From the start I was worried about the poor quality of the forest here. On one hand, it was a nightmare to work in, slowing our progress and zapping our energy. On the other hand, I had always associated wildlife with good quality forest. But with a wave of his hand my Katu guide shooed this concern. He assured me that many animals lived in this area. In fact he claimed it had more ungulates than nearby forests because it was so difficult to work in. He said few poachers were crazy enough to work here. I wondered where that put me on the sanity index.

And to my surprise he was right. By lunchtime we were hacking our way through a particularly nasty tangle of jungle. I remember thinking that no ungulate, even the diminutive mouse deer, would be able to squeeze through this rừng dày. Then I saw it at my feet: the small, clearly-cut, heart-shaped tracks of a muntjac. Could this be evidence of the Annamite dark muntjac, or samsoi cacoong, which the locals say only lives in the darkest forest hideaways? The thought that I might be so close to such an elusive animal gave me goosebumps. I knelt down and examined the tracks. They were fresh. The edges were still sharp and I estimated that the footprints were only one or two days old. My guide agreed. The fact that we had seen muntjac sign within a few hours gave my spirits a boost. Working in this forest over the next five days was going to be hard. But if there were animals here it would be worth every step. Now the only thing we needed was leeches. We had gotten a few but we needed more. And then, as if scripted out of a movie scene, I saw a leech slinking its way up my leg. Who knows? Perhaps this inch-long ectoparasite held DNA from the muntjac that had walked where we were standing. I watched its jerky spasmodic movements for a moment then put him in my collection tube. We were off to a promising start.

Wall of jungle
Wall of jungle
Leech on leaf
Leech on leaf

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