Ghosts of the Saola

Mr. Tren led me to a house at the far end of the courtyard. Long thin strips of amber sunlight filtered through the wooden slats of the hut, creating an eerie play of light and dark. As I stepped inside, it struck me that this was a room filled with caged shadows, a sun-splintered prison for the ghosts within. And there were ghosts here: I could see their hollow eye sockets staring down at me from the central altar. And I stared back, slack-jawed at the beauty, the magnificence of the two Saola skulls before me: The skull on the left was blackened from top to bottom, shining onyx in the spidery light, the long, telltale horns diverging slightly and ending in sharp tips. The second Saola trophy was even more stunning: The skull itself was bronze with a lacquer-shine, glowing faintly as if it had somehow trapped the faint light percolating into the room, and the horns, the color of burnt-out charcoal, curved back in ever-so-slight an arc: I had never seen such parabolic horns on a Saola before. For several minutes I stood mesmerized, too distracted by their splendor to bother snapping photos. Here was proof of an animal that had become, to me, more mythical than real, an animal I had traveled halfway around the planet to search for, an animal that stood precariously in the hazy twilight that precedes the dark death of a species: extinction.

Saola skull
Saola skull

For a long time I stood staring at these rare relics. I stared in awe and fascination. On one hand, the Saola skulls embodied the biological uniqueness of this region, flagships for one of the most unique and threatened terrestrial systems on the planet: the Saola was the pinnacle of an ecological pyramid that has no equal. On the other hand, on a much deeper level, they symbolized mystery in a world that is quickly losing it: in a day and age when the world is ever-shrinking and blank spots on the map are being filled in with the every-pressing sea of humanity it’s nice to know that mystery still exists: that there are still aspects of the world beyond our ken. And yet, as refreshing as mystery can be, part of me wondered, with a shade of discontent, if this was the closest I would ever get to the Saola: If I would only ever know this biological marvel through skulls hanging like long-horned death masks in the homes of the Katu. Or through microscopic strands of DNA adrift inside the digestive enzymes of a leech. Or, if I am really lucky, a hazy black and white photograph from a camera trap. Would I ever get close to this mystery that consumes so much of my time and energy? That I spend so much time thinking about? Would I ever get beyond the idea, or the shadow, of the Saola?

I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. But that’s OK. Because as much as I would love to find the Saola, to meet the animal that I have dedicated much of my life to, I know that all that really matters is that the Saola is there—that somewhere in the forests of Laos or Vietnam there are a few left to keep the idea alive. And that’s enough for me.

Saola skulls: notice the second one in the background
Saola skulls: notice the second one in the background
Saola skull
Saola skull: note the curved horns
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