Return to the mining camp

We walked along the sun-scorched road: through a shimmering haze the path appeared as a solid gold-tinted river of baked clay that flowed through the undulating hillside as far as the eye could see. We were hot and tired. My legs ached. There was a reason, I reflected, why the forests of Xe Sap still had animals in a region where wildlife trade and poaching are rampant: it was hell to get to. I’ve come to believe that that in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos remoteness does more to protect wildlife than any other factor. It is tempting to believe that protected areas can save what is left, but too often these are little more than lines on a map, lacking any meaningful follow-through with regards to law enforcement or protection. Remoteness matters. And Xe Sap was remote: I an attest to that. At the end of the first day we came to the mining camp. I expected to find a crew of Vietnamese workers, to hear raucous music drowning out the jungle sounds, to smell the pungent stench of rice wine as it hung sticky-sweet in the humid air. But the camp was abandoned. The miners had moved on. I didn’t know where they had gone: perhaps to scour another, more promising river. They left behind the heavier machinery. In the fading evening light the metallic skeleton of their construction equipment looked dark and ominous on the riverbank, resembling, I thought, a modern art sculpture meant to stand as a monument to environmental death and destruction. We fell asleep to the wind howling through the ravine. There were few trees left along the banks to stop it.

When we woke early the next morning we were greeted by an elderly Vietnamese man. He was short, wrinkled, and thin. His clothes were tattered and torn and hung loosely on his bony frame. He was drinking, at Kai’s insistence, the last of our coffee stores. I asked him in broken Vietnamese who he was and why he was here. He smiled, flashing a set of crooked and yellowing teeth, and said that he was a hunter, of course, why else would be he in this no-mans-land? He took a long sip, savoring the diesel-strong muddy-brown liquid, and said that the authorities had deported him three times from Laos, but that he kept coming back. He let out a deep, belly-rumbling guffaw: they couldn’t keep him out. I cringed inwardly at this incursion into Xe Sap: the Vietnamese poachers had emptied their own forests and were now spilling into neighboring Laos. I knew this, of course, but knowing it and seeing it are different. And I wondered: how many vagabond poachers could Xe Sap absorb before it became as empty as the forests of its next-door neighbor? It was hard to see. But there was nothing I could do about it. I decided to make the best of the situation. I asked him about Saola. Did he know the animal? Where there Saola here? He horselaughed again and nodded. Yes, yes, he said, there were Saola here. He pointed to the jungle-clad mountains just west of our location. There, he said. How close? Very close, just over the next ridge. I almost asked: Yes, but how do you know there are Saola here? But I stopped myself: I already knew the answer.

The effects of mining
The effects of mining
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