Uncharted territory

The news of the Saola’s rediscovery in Vietnam shook the conservation community in Southeast Asia and beyond. Within a few days international headlines were carrying the news. For the first time in years the Saola was back in the media spotlight. (The last time the species made international news was in 2010, when, tragically, a Saola was captured in Laos and died shortly thereafter). I was thrilled that the species was getting so much attention. The Saola needs it: the species is, after all, probably the most least-known endangered large mammal on the planet. Understandably, the WWF Hue office was abuzz. A milestone had been reached. From the start, one of the goals of the WWF program in Vietnam was to confirm that the Saola, a flagship species for the greater Mekong region, survived. We now had conclusive evidence. The atmosphere at the office was charged with excitement: one could almost feel the electrons sparkling like static through the usually still office air. But beneath the surface of that excitement ran an undercurrent of urgency: we needed to get back into that area. Foremost on everybody’s mind was the question of whether there could be more Saola there. We had to find out. And soon. I began preparing for another expedition.

The exact location of the Saola photograph was a closely guarded secret within WWF. The location would only be released, I was told, after I signed a waver form stipulating that I wouldn’t share the information. It took several days for the waiver to come from Hanoi. When it did arrive, I was confronted with a document that contained enough boilerplate legalese to give Franz Kafka nightmares. Still, I didn’t begrudge WWF for their caution, which could be interpreted as paranoia by the uninformed. Revealing the location of one of the rarest mammals on the planet was not something to be taken lightly. I scribbled my name across the final page. I was interested to learn that the camera trap photo came from an area I had never been to before. The upcoming fieldwork took on a new dimension: for me this was uncharted territory. In fact, to my knowledge, not many biologists had been to that remote corner of jungle.

I sat in my hotel room with my field gear spread around me: a bedraggled hammock flung across the bed, tattered pants draped from the chairs, antimalarials and batteries scattered across the floor, the unblinking gaze of a headlamp staring at me from the dresser. It was only after sitting down and taking stock of my supplies that I noticed the poor condition of my field gear. Every item was broken, torn, ripped, cut, or blood-spattered. And then I stood up, walked to the bathroom, flicked on the light, and stared at myself in the mirror. I looked even worse. Weeks of jungle living had taken its toll. It was then that I realized just how weak I actually was. I felt terrible. Usually a rest in Hue does wonders to restore my health and spirits after an expedition into the field, but as the days ticked by I began to feel worse. My energy was zapped. I had a constant fever. I couldn’t keep down food. The day that the new expedition was supposed to kick off I hobbled into the WWF office and told my counterpart that I couldn’t join the survey. He was furious: changing plans last-minute can cause problems with future field permissions. But there was nothing I could do about it: I was physically incapable of going back into the field. In a moment of surprising self-delusion, I convinced myself, and my WWF colleagues, that after a few more days resting in Hue I would be well enough to join the survey. It was a decision I would later regret. But how could I turn down the opportunity to visit this remote jungle hideaway? It was the one place on the planet where we had definitive evidence of Saola.

Saola jungle
Saola jungle

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