Highway One – Ha Tinh, Vietnam
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The bicycles are out in fleets of white. Schoolgirls glide by in freshly ironed blouses and long black pants. We are driving along the infamous Highway One, once known as the ‘street without joy’ during the US/Vietnam War.
In 1986, when I first travelled the route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, the roadside was littered with piles of scrap metal from tanks and bomb casings and lined with houses riddled with bullets. Then, small wooden tables displayed litres of gasoline for the few cars and trucks that bounced over the potholes on the only navigable route from north to south.
Today, gas stations have replaced the roadside stands and many new houses, several stories high with red tile roofs and steeples, have replaced the bombed out homes. Prosperity is in the air and so is the aroma of some of the most delicious food in the world as we enter the ancient imperial capital, Hue, a city of palaces and Buddhist temples, which line the Perfume River.
The city is my gateway to the A Luoi Valley, one of the areas most heavily sprayed by Agent Orange, a herbicidal/defoliant chemical used to destroy forested land, and therefore the guerilla cover during the US/Vietnam war. I first visited the remote mountainous area in the Annamites in 1987 when carrying out research on the environmental and health effects of the conflict as a project executant for WWF.
Ten years later, in 1997, I returned for the third time in search of the saola and the Truong Son muntjac. Guiding me then was ‘Mr saola’, who introduced me to villagers whose homes were adorned with trophies of both species. Tomorrow I hope to meet them again and ask about the fate of the saola, in the hope that they can tell me if they have seen any in the recent past.
In 1998, some local schoolchildren found one caught in a hunter’s snare in a deep ravine. They alerted the Forest Protection Department in Hue who rushed to the scene. The team freed the frightened animal and released it back into the wild.
With the opening up of the valley to settlers from the lowlands hunters’ snares have proliferated. The Government has established a Saola Protected Area and created, with local authorities, a team of forest guards supported by WWF and a local management board. Le Ngoc Tuan, Leader of the Saola Protected Area for the past four years, told me that, “In 2001, the first year the guards stepped up protection, they collected and destroyed 6,800 snares. So far this year they have found and eliminated an average of 100 to 200 snares a month.”
Happily, no saola have been found in any traps, but have they been seen in the wild? Perhaps some children or their parents will tell us in the morning.
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