More questions than answers

We crouched down together and pulled out the map. Squinting, we tried to match our GPS coordinates with the coordinates on the rain-speckled paper in front of us, but it was too dark. I rummaged around my backpack and pulled out a flashlight. When we found our location I grunted in disgust: in three hours of hard hiking we had covered less than a kilometer. With my flashlight I glanced back behind me and saw a narrow path tunneling through impenetrable vegetation. This was bush-whacking at its worst. Then I looked at my watch. It was almost noon. Working in this secondary forest was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The dense shrubby growth blocked out any sunlight. It was dark, thick, and thorny. Almost, paradoxical as it sounds, underwater-feeling. I couldn’t imagine an ungulate traveling through this nightmare of vegetation and yet the tracks were there. We were finding more and more every day: sambar, serow, muntjac, and wild pig roamed this area. My personal favorite was the track of a large boar set into a slightly decayed tree trunk—emphasis on the word “slightly.” I tried to plant my own footprint into the wood and barely made a dent. God, I thought, I’d hate to run into that guy. Best yet—we were getting good leech numbers. Both the animals and the leeches were there. Yes, the fieldwork was hell, but the situation looked promising.

Leech on my sock
Leech on my sock

Day in day out we hacked our way through the jungle. Fortunately the leeches usually found us: every few minutes we stopped and pulled off inch-long noodle-like parasites wriggling their way up our legs. Every time this happened I envisioned the same leech creeping its way up the leg of a Large-antlered muntjac or Saola. But did these rare species still exist in this forest? I hoped so but had my doubts: the snaring levels, although not high by Vietnam standards, were still not insignificant. Many of the snares were new, made with silver-shiny metal cables that had not yet rusted from the everyday rain. It’s hard to estimate exactly how old they were but my guess would be weeks or even days. This area was being currently hunted. But by who? It didn’t take long to find the answer. On the second day we came across three men from the nearby village of Nam Dong. They claimed that they were only in the forest to collect non-timber products, especially a root called bakit used to flavor rice wine. We chatted with them for a while and they eventually invited us back to their makeshift bamboo shelter for lunch. It was a humbling experience. The men had nothing: Their clothes were hanging in rags from their bony angular bodies, ribs showing clearly through ragged holes. Their sandals, which were made from old rubber tires, provided no protection for their leech-ridden bleeding bruised feet. Their beds were soggy leaves piled onto the muddy ground. And yet here they were insisting with excessive hospitality that I accept the little food they had to offer.

Then I saw it: a wire cord coiled like a pit viper in the corner of the shelter. The men said it was used to bind their bakit together but I knew better. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with questions: If I was in their situation would I act any differently? Could I criticize these men, who had nothing more than the threadbare clothes on their backs, for living off the land as their ancestors had done for centuries? How do you change behaviors that are culturally hard-wired or made out of desperation? Can multiple-use forest zones be used to enhance local economic growth without endangering wildlife? Is it even possible for rare species like Saola to survive surrounded by a sea of humanity—or will it follow the Vietnamese tigers and rhinos into extinction? I have more questions than answers.

Jungle-choked stream
Jungle-choked stream

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