Few things are as quiet as two dead Saola—or so it seemed to me as I gazed at the pair of skulls staring empty-eyed back at me. For a moment the everyday sounds of a Katu village at daybreak faded away. The clucking barking giggling running laughing cacophony was gone. In front of me, washed in a warm, almost pastel light, were remnants of a jungle ghost: two bleached ungulate skulls with the long tapering backward-slanting horns that can only be Saola. The sight entranced me. This collection of bone and horn seemed to capture the essence of the Annamites: Here was an animal found nowhere else on the planet, mysterious and secretive, slipping into oblivion as the rest of the world ran its course. As spectacular as these specimens were, I was all too aware that the skulls, expressionless as carved wooden masks, were shadows of the animal that I had come searching for. One part of me was thrilled to be so close to this near-mythical creature but another part was saddened that the encounter came in the dirt-floored dusty confines of a Katu hut. I traced my hands along the horns and imagined what it would be like to encounter a Saola in the wild: Splotches of sunlight quiver on the vegetation-choked floor of a jungle clearing. Without warning a burnished-black body materializes. It is a mature male. He stands for a moment, scans his surroundings, ears twitching, alert to even the faintest hint of danger. Nothing. Satisfied that all is as it should be, he lowers his head, carefully searching for the succulent green mon thuc leaves that pepper the clearing, and begins to feed. His movements are silent and fluid as drifting smoke. His smooth jet coat glistens in the broken sunlight. It gives startling contrast to the white markings scattered across his body: Ivory bands, like freshly laundered socks, encircle each foot, a snowy streak splashed across the tail, cream-colored markings like primitive tribal war paint on the face. Most impressive are the horns: perfectly symmetrical, three-foot-long parallel spears reminiscent of the desert-dwelling oryx’s of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. He feeds intently, eyes lowered, ears pricked. Unlike the smaller muntjac, which neatly snips each leaf from its stalk, the Saola clips the shoots close to the ground. The tearing and chewing sounds are just audible over the background jungle noise. Then he looks up, bristling at an unfamiliar sound or scent caught on the faint jungle breeze—and is gone.

It would almost certainly never happen but it was nice to think about.

Saola skull
Saola skull
Saola skull
Saola skull

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