An encounter with deep beauty
William deBuys, author of The Last Unicorn, lectures at the New Mexico History Museum
he quest for a phantom creature and an assessment of widespread poaching were the twin missions of a groundbreaking expedition into the forests of Laos. Conservationist and author William deBuys, who recounts the trip’s travails, joys, miseries, and surprises in The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of the Earth’s Rarest Creatures (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), talks about the experience and signs copies of the book on Friday, June 19, at the New Mexico History Museum.
Field biologist William Robichaud led the 2011 excursion into the pristine Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area in central Laos. The quarry was a rare hoofed mammal known as the saola. Scientists were amazed when the animal was discovered in 1992, since it was thought all the large mammals on Earth were already known. “Unless some army ranger glimpsed one decades ago along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, no Westerner has ever seen a saola in the wild,” deBuys writes.
Besides being elusive, the saola, which looks like a unicorn in profile, seems “to belong to a different universe” because of its demeanor. The intrepid Robichaud once visited a saola kept in a pen by a Lao hunter and found it “strangely serene ... Buddhalike in its calm.”
The expeditioners’ plan is to discuss saola protection with village elders; try to capture images of saola by planting special cameras that are triggered by body heat in the forest; and collect DNA from village hunters’ trophy saola horns and skulls. “Most important, we will survey a little-known watershed — that of the Nam Nyang [river], which no Westerner has previously explored.”
The foray begins with deBuys on a battered launch bound for Ban Makfeuang and then Ban Nameuy. “The names of these places sit on my tongue like the seeds of an exotic fruit,” he writes. “I do not know whether to swallow them or spit them out.” Well before his arrival at Ban Makfeuang, he hears amplified music, evidence of the photovoltaic panels now in use even in remote places. He sees blank-faced women watching them from windows, while yellow dogs “growl in the shadows beneath the houses” that are raised off the ground and accessed by 5-foot ladders. When the writer makes the mistake of removing his sandals at the bottom of a ladder and feels shooting pains from its narrow rungs, “The word tenderfoot lights up in my mind like a neon sign, adding embarrassment to the anxiety I feel as an alien on a new planet.”
DeBuys fills out the story of the saola pursuit with a multifaceted profile of Laos. One of its significant challenges hinges on the fact that people in the villages must move to the cities if they want better health care and education. The government has promised to bring the rural areas to the standard of the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2000, but this also threatens the natural world in the heightened consumer appetite that comes with new roads, electricity, machines, and access to markets. “Serious money — for motorbikes, generators, and a range of newly available luxuries — almost certainly has to come from trade in animals and precious wood stolen from the forest,” the author writes.
Among the most threatened species in Nakai-Nam Theun (NNT) is Siamese rosewood; sales of this rich wood have dominated trans-border trade for the last decade. Many wildlife species are taken by hunters and poachers, destined for restaurants in Vietnam and China. Many more animals and thousands of plant species are taken to satisfy Chinese demand for traditional-medicine treatments. In the NNT protected area, poachers’ snares take a terrible toll. Robichaud’s party encounters long lines of snares diabolically placed to kill or maim a wide variety of animals. Along one such line, the party finds “one macabre trophy after another for hundreds of meters” — a hog badger, a jungle fowl, a muntjac (small deer), a ferret badger, and a silver pheasant are all seen mangled in snare wires.
Another testament to the uniqueness of the saola is that it knows how to avoid the snares, according to Kong Chan, a beneficent village leader who figures prominently in this story. Perhaps even stranger is the fact that the unborn fetus of the captive saola once visited by Robichaud may, the book says, “turn out to be the most complete evidence that humanity will ever possess of the species’ presence on Earth.”
Among the other denizens of Nakai-Nam Theun are the douc (monkey), dhole (wild dog), black giant squirrel, white-cheeked gibbon, Annamite striped rabbit, colugo (a weird-looking soaring mammal), and birds including the clarion-voiced laughingthrush and the crested argus, a pheasant that has the longest feathers in the world. There are also lots of nasty leeches there, and other dangers not part of the natural milieu. After the Vietnam War, 80 million tennis-ball-sized cluster bombs lay unexploded on the landscape. Dropped from U.S. warplanes, the “bombies,” as the Lao call them, are still injuring children and farmers and water buffalo 40 years later.
The main challenges of exploring Laos, though, had to do with unreliable boat engines; a guide who was seriously annoying; sharp vines that cut hands and faces; and disagreements about routes and about pay. DeBuys’ travelogue is evocative and visceral, with all the dead animals in snares, the fear of leeches dropping onto the head and burrowing into the nearest opening, and the dietary monotony of sticky rice, which on better days was augmented by chili paste and pieces of small, bony fish.
DeBuys writes that this book was completed “to bear witness to the lament of this place and also its beauty.” The lament refers to the unavoidable sadness of the conservationist. “We mourn the loss of a forest here, a river there, and, if we are paying attention and if our hearts are the least bit open, our lives become a vigil at the bedside of an ailing planet,” he writes in the final chapter, adding, “Within the time frame of what we call civilization, the injury we do in causing extinctions is as eternal as any human accomplishment.”
In our interview, though, he asserted that the situation is not hopeless. “Wild Aid is an NGO [nongovernmental organization] out of San Francisco, and they recruited Yao Ming, the basketball star, and others to do public education campaigns. Wild Aid has documented that sales of shark fins are down 82 percent in Guangzhou, and something like two-thirds of respondents to a Chinese poll have given up sharkfin soup because of the education campaigns.
“In Nakai-Nam Theun, where we were, it’s important just to get a balance that would be sustainable between the villagers and the biota. The people have to want it to happen, they have to believe that the animals are an asset to them, but finding that balance cannot happen if the place is being invaded constantly by poachers from Vietnam: commercial, professional poaching gangs.”
Fuel for the book was sometimes gathered by interviewing Robichaud with a small recorder, but the bulk was written down on the pages of a flip notepad deBuys kept in a pocket. “I used write-in-the-rain paper, and I used a Space Pen, including when I was exhausted at the end of the day, lying on my back in the tent, because a Space Pen writes upside-down,” he said. While in Laos, he filled both sides of the pages of five 50-page notebooks.
The Last Unicorn is a great tale, in some ways reminiscent of the Indiana Jones adventures. “There is a huge tradition of literature having to do with travel and exploration,” deBuys said. “I think probably the oldest literary form in human culture is the tale of the human journey: Think of Gilgamesh and Odysseus, or Moses’ search for the Promised Land — the journey as a trial or as a quest for something. Ours was a quest for the saola, but like many journeys we went off looking for one thing and found something else: We had an encounter with deep beauty, and that was the great reward.
“A most important lesson for me is in one passage in the book where I quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at he same time, and still retain the ability to funcabout tion.’ I was talking there my friend, Mary [Burford, who died in July 2011] and the idea of somehow holding both optimism and fatalism in your heart at the same time. That became the big window for me in getting a sense of how you keep going if you are a conservation biologist working in these adverse conditions, where the poaching is so intense. I once asked Robichaud how he maintains hope, and he fired back, ‘Why do you think I do?’
“I think the question about hope is the wrong one. Robichaud is more concerned with the question, ‘What are you going to do next?’ It’s much more existential. It’s not what you think will happen, but what you will make happen.”
Juvenile saola , 1993
William deBuys with a militia
man, who joined the expedition, on the lookout
for poachers and smugglers; all images from
The Last Unicorn;
courtesy the author
Saola captured by body-heat camera,
of Ban Tong the village Children in
Village of Ban Kounè
right photo id white