Saola jungle

It wasn’t hard to imagine a Saola stalking this remote jungle sanctuary. The area was inaccessible, with steep cliffs and deep chasms, blanketed in dense tropical vegetation. The forest was excellent. Mature trees, including some behemoths over one hundred feet tall, indicated an area that was relatively undisturbed by logging. It seemed to be relatively undisturbed by people as well: in our three days surveying so far we had seen no evidence of humans. No snares, no discarded tins of canned food, no blackened charcoal heaps from burnt-out campfires. We had, on the other hand, seen plenty of ungulate sign. Hoof marks etched deep into the mud. Most of the prints were serow, no doubt, but I couldn’t help wondering if one or two could be Saola. Could we be stepping in the footprints of the same animal that had been camera trapped? It was wishful thinking, a long shot given the rarity of Saola relative to other ungulates in the area, and yet I couldn’t get that thought out of mind. It was one of those small pick-me-ups that kept me going during even the worst moments of fieldwork. And this field expedition was shaping up to be one for the record books. It was turning cold. Worse, the rains had started, and there was no sign that they would let up any time soon. My strength was zapped and I ached all over. I felt, I remember thinking, rather as if I had been run over by a train (or, in the part of the world, perhaps a water buffalo would make for a more apt analogy). But the fieldwork had to get done. I plodded on.

Oddly, we weren’t finding many leeches, despite the constant rain, which usually made for ideal leech-hunting conditions. My guess was that the leeches had become less active with the coming winter weather. When we did find a leech, it moved sluggishly, wobbling through the leaf litter as if it has drunk too much rice wine. Still, I told myself, in the search for rare species it was not just how many leeches we found, but where we found them. One hundred leeches in a good area could yield more than one thousand leeches in a hunted-out section of forest. And if the field sign was any indication, we were in an ideal place for Annamite ungulates. We worked on through the rain. The forest had become a mire of muck and mud. We trudged on, eyes peeled to the forest floor, alert to any movement that would betray a leech. It was miserable fieldwork. Never in my life have I been so wet and cold. I wondered how much longer I could last, and I felt my spirits sink. Nonetheless, at times we came across spectacular jungle scenes, sights unlike any I had ever witnessed, and when we did it seemed to lift the spirits of the group—myself included. On every fourth or fifth ridge we found high waterfalls cascading down river-smoothed stone. It was the raw power and beauty of nature distilled into a single image. One couldn’t help but marvel. At moments like this I was reminded, despite the wretched working conditions, how lucky I was to be in this jungle. It held awe-inspiring terrain. And perhaps the last of the Saola.

Excellent forest
Excellent forest
Den, a WWF colleague, in front of a waterfall
Den, a WWF colleague, in front of a waterfall

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