Saola games

The room is alive with laughing and clapping and shouting: the entire Katu village of Ta Lang, from the youngest child to the oldest septuagenarian, is crammed into the central communal hut. Two teams, each with two people, are poised at one end of the room. One person in the team is blindfolded, the other person, acting as a guide, holds the elbow of his or her sightless comrade. Both are snickering with pleasure. Then, a boisterous “Go!” is shouted above the background noise, and the pairs set off. The object of the game is simple: the first team to make it across the room wins. But the path is strewn with dangers: scraps of paper, each with writing indicating different threats (“snare,” “hunting dog,” “logging”), litter the way. If the blindfolded member stumbles into any of these threats the team has to go back to the beginning and start again. The teams ginger-step through the minefield, racing side by side, the onlookers egging them on. It looks as if it will be a photo-finish. But near the end one of the blindfolded team members bumbles into a “snare”—and with that unlucky step the game is over. The second team crosses the finish line. The room erupts in applause.

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Ta Lang audience

Thien, the Forest Guard manager for the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve, stands and, in between high-pitched laughter, tries to quiet the crowd. Various grownups utter shooshes that eventually quiet the room. Then Thien explains the purpose of the game. The blindfolded team members, he says, are like Saola, wandering through a forest filled with dangers. The Katu, he continues, can help the Saola survive: the people in this village can watch over the Saola, to help it live in peace, to survive the snares and hunters that threaten its existence. The Saola needs the people in the village of Ta Lang. And the people of Ta Lang should be proud that they are able to help protect one of the rarest and most beautiful animals on the planet—an animal, Thien notes, that is only found in Vietnam and Laos and nowhere else on the planet. There are none in zoos. Some of the last Saola in the world are found in the dense jungles of Quang Nam. In the backyards, so to speak, of the Katu people. Then Thien claps his hands and asks his colleague to fire up the projector. He has a short film, he says, about Saola. At the mention of a movie the children in the audience clap and giggle. The projector flickers to life and a Saola stalks across the screen.

Many people think that conservation biologists spend their days running around jungles looking for animals and studying them. And that does occur to some extent. But conservation happens through people: it is, by necessity, a social discipline. When it comes to endangered species, people are the problem, and people must be the solution. If we want to save Saola we must first and foremost change attitudes and behaviors. And that is why it is so encouraging, so refreshing, to see outreach activities like this in Ta Lang village. As much as I believe in the importance of fieldwork, this is ground zero for Saola conservation. It is in villages like Ta Lang that the fate of Saola will be decided in the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve.

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Ta Lang village
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Thien with the Saola game participants

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