Evolutionary artwork

We stepped into the hut. Inside it was cool, damp, and dark. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, as it does when we step from the brightness of an agricultural clearing into the daytime twilight of the jungle. The inside of the hut was simple like other Katu huts that I have seen. There was a central wooden altar, ringed by ornate blue-and-white patterned vases. I noticed that several had dragons dancing across their stilled surfaces. The thin plywood walls were sparsely decorated with faded pictures of Ho Chi Minh and framed certificates of Party membership. But this hut was different: on the side walls, facing each other, were two Saola trophies, the long saber-like horns stretching upwards to the ceiling. I walked over to the skull on the right and stared at it in amazement. Before me was the most spectacular Saola trophy I have ever seen. The skull itself was honeyed-brown, the color of sun-bronzed skin. The eye sockets were deep and haunting in their emptiness. And then there were the horns: They were over three feet long, obsidian-black, well-worn and smooth to the touch: two parallel stripes that seemed almost abstract in their beauty: they belonged, I thought, in a Mondrian. I ran my fingers along the polished horns from the sharpened tips to the bases then along the skull from the eye sockets down the nasal bones then let my hand fall into free space. I had to touch it to really believe that it was there. At times the Saola, this phantom that I am chasing, seems no more than a figment of my imagination, and to lay hands on a Saola skull is like touching a ghost. And so now I felt a tactile connection to this animal, to this landscape, a connection that I can’t find in my thoughts alone.

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First Saola skull

I turned to the second skull. It was smaller, blackened by years of smoke and soot, but still spectacular. The horns diverged more, and I wondered again, for perhaps the umpteenth time, if this could be a sexually dimorphic trait. I turned to the Katu man beside me and asked if this was a male or female. He said that this skull, the smaller of the two, was from a young male, while the first trophy was from an old female. Perhaps there is something to sexual dimorphism after all, I thought, though without more specimens it was impossible to say. But I didn’t spend too long dwelling on this. I wasn’t just the quizzical biologist today. No, no—today I felt more like an admirer of fine art, and at this moment I had the opportunity to gaze at one of the most amazing evolutionary creations to come out of the past few million years: Saola. I asked the man if I could hold the skull. He gave a short nod. I removed it from the wall and tried to imagine what the animal, the actual animal, had been like: Its base coat would have been chocolate brown in the sunlight, fading to almost total-black in the shade. But even in shadow the white splashes along the face and at the base of the tail and that circled the feet would have glowed moon-white. It would have moved slowly, ever so cautiously, its bulky form making almost no noise at all as it ginger-stepped through the forest, nipping at leaves and shoots before dissolving back into the green-chaos of the jungle. Simply put: it would have been one of the most stunning sights in the natural world, both in a biological and aesthetic sense: evolutionary artwork.

I looked down at my watch. It was long past time to go. I put the skull back on the wall and headed for the door. I started to turn back to snatch one last glance at the trophies, but I caught myself. I wanted to remember the Saola as it had existed in my imagination, the living, breathing animal. The treasure that I felt deep down still existed in these dark jungles.

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Second Saola skull
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Second Saola skull
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