Xe Sap

Xe Sap. Say it out loud: “zay saap.”  The “z” snaps off the tongue, while the softer-sounding “s” lingers like the slow hissing of a snuffed-out flame. Those two words are enough to send chills through any Southeast Asian biologist.In fact, mention it to a group of them and watch what happens: the one or two who are lucky enough to have been there will tell field stories to an enraptured audience whose eyes have glazed over with equal parts excitement and envy. (My favorite yarn was when Rob Steinmetz told of a late night tiger encounter while surveying there in 1999. Both he and the tiger decided to go their separate ways. I think Rob was the more relieved of the two.) Why all the fuss? Because Xe Sap National Protected Area is one of the most remote, least explored, and biodiversity-rich protected areas in the region. It’s a treasure-trove of biological secrets. A true gem of the Annamites. And it’s where I’ll be taking you over the next several posts.

Xe Sap is located in southeastern Laos along the border with Vietnam. There are a couple reasons why Xe Sap is unique. First, there’s size. At 1335 square kilometers, Xe Sap one of the largest protected areas in the region, dwarfing those in adjacent Vietnam. For protected areas size matters. The larger the area the more likely it is that there will be remote regions that haven’t been hunted out: areas isolated enough to be protected from poachers. But size alone doesn’t explain its uniqueness. For that we have to turn to biogeography. Look at the map, and you’ll see that Xe Sap stretches some 80 miles from the east to west. Along that east—west gradient is an array of habitat types: wet evergreen forest, semi-evergreen forest, high-altitude cloud forest, and grasslands. Generally speaking the eastern regions are wetter and more mountainous while the western areas are drier and flatter. These diverse habitats contain an equally diverse assemblage of fauna and flora. While I appreciate all aspects of the biodiversity in these jungles, and would never slight, say, the birders for keeping their eyes peeled to the sky, I am at heart a mammologist, so that’s what I am focused on. And for mammals Xe Sap is phenomenal. The roster is like a Who’s Who of the Species Spotlight.

Until very recently Xe Sap contained a megafauna wish list. Within the last twenty years leopards prowled the thickly-forested hills, gaur lumbered in herds across the grasslands, elephants drifted like huge clouds of gray smoke through the forest, and tigers were the seldom-seen but always acknowledged rulers of the jungle. It’s not known if these species still exist within the protected area. Many have probably been regionally extirpated through the extensive hunting that plagues almost every corner of the Annamites. However, even if these large mammals have faded into memories, there is still much in Xe Sap to be appreciated, including, most notably, a number of endemics: Owston’s civet, Large-antlered muntjac, Annamite dark muntjac, Annamite striped rabbit, and (possibly) Saola. That “possibly,” nestled uncomfortably in parentheses, was what had brought me to Xe Sap. I was on a mission to assess the likelihood that Saola still existed in the easternmost part of the protected area. I was there to find out if this out-of-the-way jungle might hold one of the most elusive and endangered large mammals on the planet.

Xe Sap NPA relative to adjacent Vietnamese protected areas
Xe Sap NPA relative to adjacent Vietnamese protected areas

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