Surprise encounter with a Saola

Towards the end of our survey we ran out of food. The local guides proposed eating from the jungle. But, perhaps seeing that I was less than thrilled at the prospect of tadpoles, frogs, and insects three meals a day, Khamhou, our WWF liaison, offered to make a trip out of Xe Sap into neighboring Vietnam to buy supplies. He left early one morning and promised to be back that evening. I wished him a safe trip. My team set out for our day’s work in the jungle. We had two more camera traps left to set. I was determined to find good locations for these last pair of electronic eyes. I didn’t give Khamhou’s brief foray back into civilization another thought.

When we staggered back to camp that evening, tired and bedraggled, Khamhou greeted us beaming. I casually asked how the trip went, dropped my bag to the ground, and started to walk to my hammock. I needed to crash. Khamhou said that the trip had gone well, that it was uneventful, then mentioned that he had seen a Saola. I spun around. My eyes must have been the size of dinner plates. I imagined Khamhou driving his motorbike along the sole road running through Xe Sap and swerving last minute so that he didn’t hit one of the rarest mammals on the planet. Could it be? Was he one of the select few who had seen a living Saola? Khamhou, reading my thoughts, explained that he hadn’t seen a Saola in the forest, but had, rather, come across a set of horns in the town where he had gone to buy food. Although not as exciting as seeing the real deal, this was still an important find, with the potential to provide valuable information about the species in this area.

Khamhou showed me photos of the Saola. I was stunned. Unlike other trophies that I’ve seen, this specimen appeared unusually fresh, complete with a patch of skin sporting the Saola’s characteristic chocolate-colored bristle-like hair. I asked Khamhou if he was able to get any information about the trophy. He did ask about it, partly, he said, because he knew I would want to know more. How right he was. According to the owner, the Saola had been snared by an uncle of his in 2008, not in Vietnam, but in Laos: in the northeast corner of Xe Sap. This was a shocking revelation. If true, it meant that, until only a few years ago, the area just to the north of our survey location had Saola. From the map, that area didn’t appear particularly remote. Given the ease of access into that corner of the protected area, it would make sense, I reasoned, that the harder-to-access areas would have a few Saola hanging on. Was this wishful thinking on my part? Probably. But it still remained a possibility.

I thanked Khamhou and went back to my hammock. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. Instead I imagined a living breathing Saola haunting the dense jungles of Xe Sap. I could only hope that there were one or two left.

Saola trophy
Saola trophy

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