Second camp in Xe Sap

After we had set half the camera traps and explored the northern section of our study area, we moved camps. We had originally decided to target a different area of Xe Sap altogether: an area further away from the Vietnam border. This was a gamble, but one I was convinced was worth taking. Many weeks ago, back in Texas, as I was planning the survey with the help of renowned biologist Rob Timmins, we decided that an area further inland from the rugged mountain chain that divides Laos and Vietnam would be worth exploring. There is a tradeoff here: As one moves further west from the Vietnam border the forest becomes drier, transitioning from true wet evergreen forest to semi-evergreen forest and then to dry forest. And remember that, according to all available information, the Saola is a wet evergreen forest habitat specialist. On the other hand, poaching levels probably decline sharply as one moves away from Vietnam (and it’s ninety-plus million people). Somewhere in the middle, we reasoned, there should be a Saola sweet spot: Habitat that is still wet enough for Saola, but far away enough from the border so that Vietnamese poachers haven’t hunted it out.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. As is so often the case, logistical difficulties and a short timeline made this move to another part of the protected area unfeasible. If we did make the move, the team would have a couple days, tops, to survey the surrounding area. So I made a gut call: We’d move camp a few miles south, staying near the Vietnam border. The new camp would only take a day to walk to. And it was an area I had never surveyed before. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get into the area we had planned to visit, but consoled myself that at least I knew that the forest near the Vietnam border was true wet evergreen forest: ideal Saola habitat. I only hoped that it hadn’t been emptied by poachers. The trip to find the mythical Saola sweet spot would have to wait until another trip . . .

The team built the second camp with astonishing alacrity. At one moment, I was staring at a dark, tangled, weed-choked patch of streamside jungle. At the next moment the area had been cleared. It was drenched in sunlight, sporting a modest-sized frame structure covered by a giant tarpaulin: our new jungle home. I admired, yet again, the efficiency of our Katu local guides. Hard physical tasks that would have taken someone like me ages were completed in minutes. And it was all done with smiles that flashed white-bright in sun-darkened faces and a melodic sing-song tune that reverberated through the humid air. Soon the last light had faded and the only illumination came from the crackling fire blazing beside the shelter. I sat in the dark by the stream listening to frogs calling and smoking a long traditional Katu pipe. Inhale deeply. Hold: one, two, three, four. Exhale and watch the wisps of smoke twisting and writhing in the evening air before dissolving into nothingness. And I became contemplative. The tobacco pushed me past thought and feeling onto some more fundamental plane, and I wondered, truly wondered, if this out of the way patch of forest still held the rare Annamite jewels that I had traveled so far to find. Did Xe Sap still have Annamite striped rabbit? Or Large-antlered muntjac? Or, the most precious jewel of all—Saola? I didn’t know. That didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the thought that I might never know.

Second camp in Xe Sap
Second camp in Xe Sap
“I sat in the dark listening to frogs calling . . .”
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