Nature writer Montgomery (Encantado: Pink Dolphin of the Amazon, 2002, etc.) leads us on an evocative journey to difficult places, following the trail of a mystery creature.
Long unseen, little-known, scientifically unrecorded species have a habit of turning up in village markets throughout the ancient rainforests of Southeast Asia, often on the way to becoming meat or elixir. So it was with a moon bear that Montgomery, in the company of zoologist Gary Galbreath, found in one small Cambodian town, providing evidence that at least one member of what Rudyard Kipling called “the most bizarre of the ursine species” had survived bombing, landmines, and clear-cutting. But, Galbreath revealed, a more bizarre species lurked somewhere out in the Annamite highlands of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, which the eminent zoologist George Schaller once characterized as “a living lost world” and a lode for unknown species: a golden moon bear, visibly different from the moon- and sun-bears of Southeast Asia, an unknown link in the ursine evolutionary chain. Their quest to document this creature on the ground forms the narrative frame of this account, which takes in great patches of unknown territory and affords a sobering, sidelong view of lands still ravaged by war. That tale is well paced and full of surprises, though some of Montgomery’s prose is overly lush, bordering on eco-porn (“Perhaps this is the pace the bear lives by—an ancient pace, graceful and considered, like the way her long tongue emerges from her mouth. . . . Like a separate, private creature, the pink ribbon slides from between her black lips, taking five full seconds to extrude its full length, stretching seven inches longer than her muzzle”). Despite occasional excesses, however, her story does the job—and, in the bargain, offers well-considered remarks on the difficulties of establishing animal- and habitat-conservation programs in impoverished countries where aboriginal people are disappearing as quickly as any other species.
A treat for fans of the crocodile-hunting, snow leopard–searching, wolves-and-men genre, and a solid addition to it.