Vu Quang National Park, Vietnam



Posted on 31 May 2012  | 
Read Dr Elizabeth Kemf's diary of her recent visit to Vietnam and Laos, as she explores what has happened in the 20 years since the discovery of the saola and efforts to ensure its protection. Dr Kemf is author of Month of Pure Light: the regreening of Vietnam, and is writing a book on the rise and fall of Indochina’s Elephant Kings.

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Nguyen Xuan Huu was collecting plants in the forest when his dogs disappeared. He followed the excitable barking and found a saola, which his dogs had cornered. It lay next to a small stream, exhausted from the chase. Huu and his son had no guns or knives so they used some rocks to put it out of its misery.

“What year was our daughter born?" Huu asks his wife as we sit in his home. “In 1998” she replies joining the interview, which Vu Quang national park have organised. He explains that he found the saola around the time his wife gave birth. “We used to see a lot when we first moved here, but we haven’t seen any in years” he adds.

Huu is not a hunter but a traditional healer who collects his most prized plants on the Laos side of the Annamites. “It’s called Cay Tuyet Nhung" he says pointing to one of the species."I don’t know what it is used for and where it is sold. One trader from Quang Binh pays me 110,000 dong (USD $5.50) a kilo, while another from Ha Tinh only pays 70,000 (US$3.50).”

I roll down my left leech sock and ask the park guards if the traditional doctor will look at my foot and my ankle, which have swollen to twice their normal size. He examines the inflamed area, exclaiming that he knows just the remedy. He disappears behind a curtain off the kitchen where his wife has just stoked the fire to boil some water for tea.

Do you think he will show us the horns, I ask as he reappears with a large plastic bottle filled with the roots of a “rare tree” soaking in a dark red liquid. The park ranger hints that we would like to see his saola horns, but the healer is busy pouring the concoction on my wound and massaging my foot.

His wife brings small glasses, less than the size of a shot of whiskey, and we imbibe the reddish brew. He vanishes again, returning with his trophy, clutched closely to his chest. It is one of the best preserved trophies I have seen in the 15 years I have visited villager’s houses in search of the horns. Even the teeth are intact. “I hide them and rarely show them because I am afraid someone might steal them. I have had many offers” he said. The horns have become a family heirloom.

Hours later, back at the park, I dutifully drink the potion again before setting out with the forest guards to explore Vu Quang. We pause at a temple on the edge of the forest and light some incense. I inspect my foot and ankles, now nearly back to their normal size. The park’s driver announces that his backache is gone. Ngan, the WWF staff member guiding the trip, asked if we could stop by Huu’s house later to buy some more of the medicine for her grandmother. I’m keen, I said, hoping for a check up and the chance to photograph the trophy one last time before heading south to Thua Thien Hue Province and its saola haven.

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Nguyen Xuan Huu has one one the best preserved trophies Elizabeth has ever seen.
© Elizabeth Kemf/ WWF-Greater Mekong Enlarge

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