First camp in Xe Sap

We woke early on the morning of May 21 and assembled in the barren-earth courtyard. Khamhou, our WWF representative, gave last minute orders to the porters. His voice was soft, stripped of any commanding quality, barely audible above the background noise of a Katu village at daybreak. And yet when he spoke people listened. We finished packing the supplies. Then we set off on motorbikes down a dirt road rutted with well-worn tired tracks etched deep into the hard red clay. I marveled at the fact that there was a road running through the protected area, opening this biologically spectacular piece of jungle real estate to easy access from nearby border towns in Vietnam, opening it to an untold number of poachers. But, as is typical of every other place I have been in Southeast Asia, infrastructure development takes priority over wildlife protection. I was dismayed but not surprised. After half an hour we stopped. I jumped off the motorbike, shouldered my pack, and we stepped off the road and into the forest. We hiked for several hours. In the early afternoon we came to an ideal camping spot: an open flat area beside a small stream. I wanted to push further into the jungle but the team insisted we stop here, claiming that there would be no other suitable locations upriver. I fished the topographical map out of my backpack and poured over its kaleidoscopic contour lines. They were right. If we had a smaller team it would have been possible to go deeper into the forest. But at thirteen members we were a large group, and we needed a sizeable camping spot. I reluctantly agreed. The guides began making camp: they cleared the area of brush with their machetes and cut poles that they then used to construct the skeleton of our makeshift shelter. Within an hour they had finished. It was, I remember thinking as I came back from gathering firewood, a nice-looking camp.

We spent the afternoon resting. We would need all our strength for the upcoming expedition. The guides played cards around the smoldering embers of a campfire, laughing and chatting and smoking their long homemade Katu pipes. I read in my hammock and then poked around the campsite. Sometimes, in my hyper-focused surveys, which are directed towards understanding large mammal status and distribution, I overlook the smaller things, especially the arthropods. But make no mistake: the insects, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes that roam the leaf litter are no less spectacular than other taxa. Smaller, yes. But just as awe-inspiring. Breaks like this are my chance to explore this often-overlooked dimension of tropical forest biodiversity. Within minutes I had snapped photos of black velvet-winged damselflies, flame-colored Hemiptera, and an emerald beetle that glowed as if it had been dipped in phosphorescent paint. At one point I stumbled across a giant walking stick that moved with a jerky-swaying motion meant to mimic a twig waving in the wind. It was a species I had never encountered before—a poignant reminder of the wonders and mysteries in the jungles of the Central Annamites.

First camp in Xe Sap
First camp in Xe Sap
Amazing arthropods
Amazing arthropods
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