Dedicated conservationist deBuys (A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, 2011 etc.) undertakes an arduous trek through the wilds of central Laos in a quest to help save one of the most elusive animals on the planet, the large grazing mammal known as a saola.
Following a 2009 lecture in Washington, D.C., in which the author evaluated ongoing efforts to save a forest in central Borneo, he received an intriguing offer. In 1992, the world outside of Southeast Asia became aware of a mysterious mammal when scientists came across a pair of extraordinarily long, tapered horns decorating the wall of a Vietnamese hunter’s cabin. Did deBuys have an interest in writing about this reclusive horned animal never seen by Westerners? Two years later, the author traveled to the Annamite mountain range, situated on the border between Laos and Vietnam. He joined an expedition whose immediate goals included studying the animal’s habitat, documenting the consistent threat of poaching, and building support for wildlife conservation among the region’s inhabitants to “save the saola from extinction.” The group traveled through the rugged terrain by car, boat and foot, accompanied by armed guards and porters, to their final destination in a remote forested canyon. The author deftly chronicles both the physical and emotional challenges that come with group travel through an isolated region. He also weaves in abbreviated natural histories of the multitude of indigenous creatures in the area—e.g., the red-shanked douc and ferret badger. DeBuys laments the destruction of the natural environment caused by the illegal harvesting of forest products. The author’s immersive narrative and numerous photos of the unremitting poaching inflicted upon the region’s wildlife cause both reader engagement and heartache.
A riveting and disturbing account of the clash between the beauty of the wilderness and civilization’s unrelenting demands on the natural world.