Midnight surprise

I awoke to shouting: a mixture of Vietnamese and Katu. I could just make out the word “rabbit” in each language. I rubbed my sleep-watered eyes and glanced down at my watch: it was almost midnight. Linh, our Forest Ranger from the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve, rushed up to me and told me to get up quick, there was a rabbit nearby. My neurons were firing slowly at that late hour, but it didn’t take long for me to realize, with a jolt of excitement, that he was telling me that one of the most elusive mammals in the Annamites was close at hand. I leaped out of my hammock and sprinted across the camp. I stopped near the stream and scanned the bank, goggle-eyed, looking for movement, expecting to catch a fleeting glimpse of a rabbit as it melted back into the forest. But I didn’t. Instead I saw Bet, our Katu guide, calmly holding a buff-and-orange-colored ball of fur: an Annamite striped rabbit. He had caught it by hand while out fishing. I couldn’t believe my eyes: indeed, part of me wondered if I wasn’t still asleep, dreaming this biological mystery into existence. But no—it was real. Before me was one of the most secretive and little-known mammals to haunt these jungles. An animal that was discovered by the outside world less than twenty years ago. An animal that epitomizes the beauty and fragility of the Annamites. And here it was, before me, staring up at me with large round purple-tinted eyes.

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Bet holding an Annamite striped rabbit

I admired the rabbit for several minutes, too awe-struck to speak. The body was perfectly adapted to a jungle-dwelling life: short ears and legs and a compact frame made for squeezing through dense undergrowth. I reached out and touched its fur. Its hair was as fine as down. The coloration was more spectacular and complex than I had noticed from our camera trap pictures alone. It’s pale sandy base was grizzled with darker tan overtones. Most striking was the striped patterning for which it gets its name: A single jet streak started at the nose and ran like a racing stripe down the back before dissolving at the base of the tail. Two more stripes spilled from the eyes and up to the ears and then continued in thicker streams down along the flank. A final slash streaked diagonally downwards near the hind legs. It was as if evolution had taken a course in Japanese calligraphy. The underside was bright white. To top it all, the two-toned body was capped by a rust-colored rump. Stunning.

But physical descriptions don’t do justice to the experience. This small rabbit is much more than the sum of its parts—even if those parts are splashed with some of the most beautiful markings in the lagomorph world. As I looked at the rabbit, as I held it, I realized just how special this encounter was. Indeed, I think it is the highlight of my years of fieldwork in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos. It’s rare to see animals in dense tropical rainforest, especially when those forests have been heavily defaunated, as they have in central Vietnam. To see a common mammal is remarkable. But to come face-to-face with one of the most elusive forest phantoms in the world, an animal biologists know virtually nothing about, a species that few scientists (and even fewer Westerners) have ever seen, is a bit like winning the fieldwork lottery. But more than that I was struck by the fact that here was all the mystery and splendor of the Annamites in condensed form: unknown, secretive, unique. This is exactly why I came to these distant forests, why I fell in love with this landscape. This rabbit also epitomized the fragility of this biological hotspot: from our camera trapping, we know that the species is rare, sometimes nonexistent, in areas with even moderate levels of hunting. The Annamite striped rabbit is hanging on in Vietnam, but only just. With current poaching trends it will be lost sooner than most people realize.

After pictures and more awestruck admiration on my part we released the rabbit back into the forest. It disappeared into the thick undergrowth. Then we all smiled, chatted a few minutes about the experience, and all retired to our hammocks. I tried to sleep that night. But couldn’t.

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Annamite striped rabbit
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Annamite striped rabbit

 

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4 thoughts on “Midnight surprise”

  1. Fantastic Andrew! You are really living many little boys’ dreams. I am so glad yours are coming true. I am so glad to be there vicariously with you. keep up the good work and live life to the fullest>

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