Dark jungle

We grasp onto anything that we can: tree roots, branches, saplings, rocks. Anything that will hold our weight as we stagger up the mountain. The progress is slow: one hour ascent has taken us only three hundred meters from our campsite. When we do reach the top of the mountain I collapse to the ground. Usually on difficult hikes my legs are burning but this time my arms ache instead. I look down to the way we had come: it is a straight drop broken only by rocky projections and patches of scrubby vegetation. We had literally pulled ourselves up a near-vertical face. This was the hike we would have to do each day to get out of the ravine. I asked myself: Is it worth it? I looked at the jungle scene around me and smiled. A wall of vegetation surrounded us—it almost felt as if the thick and thorny tangle was keeping us prisoner. Then why was I smiling? Because this was exactly the kind of forest where the Katu said large mammals still roamed, including endangered species like Saola and bear. This jungle was going to be hell to work in but it looked promising: remote, dark, primeval-feeling, it could be a last stronghold for the species I was searching for. After a five minute rest we stumbled to our feet and pressed on.

It didn’t take long to see our first sign. Etched into the mud were two hoof prints. Their edges were still sharp, indicating that the animal that made them had stood where we were standing only hours before. We identified the tracks as serow. The fact that this large goat-antelope was living on these slopes gave me hope that rarer endemic ungulates might still be found here. Then two hours later we came across a startling discovery: claw marks, each one two inches long, engraved into the side of a tree. It was only the third time I have encountered bear sign in Vietnam. The marks were relatively new, having been made sometime in the spring when the bees produced honey. I imagined the scene: a hulking black mass of muscle scrambling up forty feet of tree to fight off a swarm of furious bees and snatch its surgery reward. That such spectacles still occurred at all in Central Vietnam was amazing: both bear species have been hunted almost to extinction for the illegal wildlife trade. It was an indication that this area had less hunting pressure than other areas in this landscape: when the poachers settle in, large carnivores, which sit at the top of the trophic pyramid and have naturally low population densities, are usually the first to go. Months before I had come across fresh bear sign in a remote region near the Laos border. Sign surveys and camera trapping showed that area to be particularly rich in wildlife. Had we now stumbled upon another hotspot? The idea was intriguing. Only time would tell—for a complete picture of the mammalian biodiversity in this area we’d have to wait for the leeches to reveal their secrets.

Dark jungle
Dark jungle
Bear claw marks on tree
Bear claw marks on tree

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