Times have changed

We sit huddled together around the fire. Its orangish glow illuminates a small ring of forest surrounding our camp. After that: a blackness seething with the sounds of jungle life. Mixed with a chorus of calling frogs and chirping insects is rapid-fire chatter in Vietnamese. A passionate discussion is taking place. About what, I can’t be sure. My own language skills are not fine-tuned enough to pick up the thread of their conversation. But I try. I catch a few common Vietnamese words but nothing that would help me gain context. Then I notice three English letters repeated several times: MIA. Read more…

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An abrupt ending

“Water! Water!” I heard screaming. A lightning strike illuminated the camp. Phosphorescent figures flickered before me. What was happening? Instinctively I glanced down at my watch. It was almost 2:00 am. “Water!” said Thien. I looked down and saw six inches of water flowing beneath my hammock. More disturbing: I could actually see it rising before my eyes. I jolted awake. How much time did I have? 30 seconds? 60? Thien grabbed my arm. “Hurry!” he said. And then he was gone. Read more…

The struggle continues

We hiked to the lower reaches of the stream and made a temporary camp. The Forest Guard team left: A lighthearted chattering filled the forest as they started back to headquarters. Thien and I were alone. We spent the night and waited for the new team to arrive. Both of us needed a break. The next afternoon the replacements came. It was too late in the day to set out to a new survey area—our campsite was already drenched in the violet shadow of a nearby mountain—so we would spend another night at this interim site. I honestly didn’t mind the extra day of rest. That night the Forest Guards cooked a sumptuous fish stew. It was first substantial protein I’d had in over a week. Fish has never tasted so good. Read more…

The work begins

We followed the same routine every day: We set off at 7:00 am after a hurried breakfast of rice and dried fish. I need two cups of instant coffee to jolt me awake. The teams travel together up the stream and then split. Thiens group takes the area to the right of the river and my group goes left. Then we climb a near vertical assent through thick vines and tangled vegetation, clearing a tunnel-like path through the vegetation with our machetes. Once we reach the top of the mountain the vegetation thins and the ground opens. The three of us spread out and systematically comb both the ground and ourselves for leeches. Read more…

Paradise lost?

We set off at daybreak the next morning. Everyone in the group felt that sense of excitement that accompanies the start of an expedition. After looking at my GPS I realized why this forest felt different. At 600 meters above sea level we were at a lower elevation than other areas I had surveyed. Many of the forested tracts in central Vietnam are at elevations of 1000 meters or more. This was true lowland tropical forest. According to information gathered from local hunters, this was the ideal habitat for many endemic ungulates, including Saola. After traveling upstream we divided into two teams. I would lead one group along with the head Forest Guard and a local guide. Thien, another WWF biodiversity consultant and my primary collaborator in the field, would lead the second group with two other Forest Guards. Our group headed north. The guides were smiling and chatting in Vietnamese as we walked. I was admiring the beauty of the forest around me and occasionally catching splashes of their conversation. All was good. And then we saw it: A bright blue tarp standing in sharp contrast to the green jungle vegetation. It was a poachers camp.

Poachers camp
Poachers camp

We froze. The Forest Guards had already warned me that poachers in this region were often armed and dangerous. I ducked into a tangle of bamboo while the Forest Guard cautiously approached the camp. He crouched low into the vegetation like a tiger stalking its prey. Then he jumped into the campsite, looked around, sighed, and waved us over. It was empty. We walked up to the camp and looked around. Hours-old cigarette butts and still-smoldering ashes told us that we had just missed its inhabitants. Then I noticed a grisly sight: a trophy board along one of the palm-thatched walls. Skulls and feathers provided a macabre reminder of the poachers most recent kills. Although sickened by the sight, I tried to put my emotions aside and act as any professional zoologist should. This was, after all, data. I examined each skull. Pig, muntjac, and monkey were all present, along with a host of small carnivore species. All seemed to have been killed weeks or even days before. It was a depressing reminder of ongoing illegal hunting in this area. I tried telling myself that it was also evidence that there were still large mammals present in the area—but it didn’t make me feel much better.

We were all silent for a few minutes. I remember thinking: Has this paradise been lost? One of the Forest Guards must have read my mind. “There are still animals here,” he said in a quiet yet firm voice. “This is still a good area. One of the best in Bach Ma.” I nodded and again drifted back into my own thoughts. I decided that I could use this experience one of two ways: I could let it get me down or I could use it to fuel my work. “Let’s go,” I said to the team. We shouldered our backpacks and set off into the jungle. We weren’t as optimistic as we had been half an hour before. But we were more determined.

Poacher trophy board
Poacher trophy board
Close up of monkey skull
Close up of monkey skull

Into Bach Ma

I sit on the corner of my hotel bed staring at my tattered field gear. My once white shirts are now a shade somewhere between clay-red and muddy brown. My green hammock is splotched with so many blood stains that it resembles some sort of macabre tie-dye Christmas decoration. It was an exhausting trip—but productive. We collected many leeches in good forest. It thrills me to no end to think that in a few months time these leeches will give us a window into the unique mammalian community living in these jungles. Over the next several posts I will be writing about this trip. Read more…