An en­counter with deep beauty

Wil­liam deBuys, au­thor of The Last Uni­corn, lec­tures at the New Mexico History Mu­seum

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Paul Wei­de­man

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

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