With thanks to Mr. Nabokov

When I recall my time in Xe Sap, I am, to steal a phrase from Vladimir Nabokov, “thinking of aurochs and angels.” It’s a bittersweet mixture. The aurochs, those extinct animals that live now only as ghosts of the past, haunt the region. Gone are the days when Sahib Stripes, the mighty tiger, roamed these jungles: he is now a black and burnished orange memory. The rhinos have disappeared: their horns, now worth more per ounce than gold or cocaine, have put a terrible price tag on their heads, and they are gone not just from Xe Sap but probably from all of mainland Southeast Asia. Eld’s deer, that magnificent cervid that sports a hat rack that would make any self-respecting muntjac turn crimson, departed long ago from these vales. And the list goes on and on. But there is no reason to compile a roster of the dead. Xe Sap isn’t unique in this respect. Unfortunately, it is like many other protected areas in Southeast Asia: it’s lost much of its charismatic megafauna. A lot. But not all. And therein lies the key.

What sets Xe Sap apart from other areas in the region, especially from the forests in neighboring people-crammed Vietnam, is what it has left. Sure it’s been hit hard by poaching. But the animals that still survive in its forests comprise an impressive list: gaur, bear, serow, sambar, Owston’s civet, Annamite dark muntjac, and striped rabbit are known to live here. From villager interviews, it is likely that leopard and various medium sized cats also prowl these forests. And perhaps most noteworthy of all, circumstantial evidence indicates that the rarest of the rare, Saola, still roam to these jungle-clad mountains. Xe Sap may not have what it once had, but it is still, in my estimation, one of the best places left in the central Annamites, one of the last and best hopes for Annamite endemics that are hanging on by the slenderest of threads. The fact that dark muntjac and striped rabbit still occur in Xe Sap, and that the protected area probably has Saola, strikes me as one of those minor miracles that comes to conservation biologists if they spend enough time in the trenches. It’s a godsend. And to me, funny as it may sound, difficult as it is to explain, these animals, living deep inside this Lao sanctuary, are something akin to angels: a perfect counterbalance to the aurochs of the past. How can I explain? What can I say? I have, for some time now, become jaded about conservation in this region: most likely because I’ve just spent too much time in the half-empty forests of central Vietnam. Xe Sap showed me that not all is lost in this landscape. That there are still places that provide hope. Looking back, I realize that I needed this trip. I needed to experience a landscape that still had a semblance of wholeness. I have no doubt that Xe Sap helped me more than I helped it. But I will do what I can to repay that debt because I am convinced that we can’t lose places like Xe Sap: not without losing a piece of ourselves in the process.

Fresh muntjac tracks in Xe Sap
Fresh muntjac tracks in Xe Sap
Jungle-clad mountains of Xe Sap
Jungle-clad mountains of Xe Sap

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