Vu Quang National Park – Vietnam
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I have never seen people so excited about the leech, which we are hoping to avoid as we swing through a network of national parks and protected areas straddling the Vietnam/Laos border in search of the saola, one of the world’s most mysterious mammals, which hides out from hunters in the remote Annamite Mountains.
Before heading off to the Annamites, the first thing I did upon arrival to Vinh City in central Vietnam, an area not far from where over a thousand new species have been discovered in the past 20 years, was to search the local market for a pair of knee-length socks to keep the blood sucking critters off. The socks were an indispensable part of my WWF research gear in the Greater Mekong Programme area in the mid 1990s.
We have recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the discovery by scientists of the saola, the 8 million year old ungulate, similar in resemblance to goats and antelopes but which is really closely related to wild cattle. With its long horns and white facial markings the animal could be mistaken for an antelope from North Africa, but the scientists who first saw trophies in a hunter’s house in the Vu Quang Nature reserve in 1992, were certain they had stumbled onto a new species.
The animal has yet to be seen in the wild by a scientist, but the 82 year old villager, Nguyen Xuan Vinh, whose saola trophies led to the discovery two decades ago told me that the animals used to be common in the area where he lives. He said that he had hunted around seven saola in his life, but he hasn’t seen one in years. “I think they have gone to higher ground, at least 700 or 800 meters above sea level” he explained.
So, why is everyone now so enthused by the leech? Very few sightings have occurred in the last 20 years and so scientists are looking for new methodologies to detect the saola. Collecting leeches instead of droppings is part of a new exciting survey technique pioneered by WWF. They are hoping to find saola DNA, which the leeches suck from their victims and store for up to four months. Nicolas Williamson, a wildlife ecologist based in Vietnam, collected leeches on the Vietnamese side of the Annamites and sent them to a Danish geneticist. Thus far, none of the leeches have contained saola DNA, but they did harbor DNA from other mammals, including the Truong Son muntjac and the Annamite striped rabbit discovered only a decade ago.
As we pull up our leech socks and head off to interview villagers and forest guards, there is a new sense of excitement. Perhaps the saola can be detected in a way that will save time and money and detecting the saola, the most famous sumbol of the evergreen Annamites, can help to save the rich biodiversity of this area.
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