A Luoi, 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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This morning, a group of villagers and I gathered in a ceremonial house on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to share saola stories. An set up his laptop and I slipped in a CD with photos of hunters and villagers displaying their trophies to me in 1997. I showed them a communal house in Quang Nam that had seven saola trophies, and a number of large-antlered and Truong Son muntjacs, found only in the Annamites. One image showed a man proudly holding two sets of saola horns.

The vice-chairman of the commune identified the man as his uncle. When I asked if I could visit him, he told me his uncle had suffered a stroke and could no longer speak. Moreover, he had sold the horns. This man was like so many of the others I had interviewed in 1997, they were either too sick to talk or had died. I found out that a woman who exhibited a pair of large-antlered muntjac horns fifteen years ago had also died.

Unlike in the past, not one person had a trophy to show me. They said they had sold them all to scientific researchers and traders for less than USD $20 a skull.

They did all have stories to tell though. In turn, those that were present, shared their saola stories starting with the time in 1988 when three Ta Oi boys found a saola caught in a ravine and rushed off to get the authorities to help it escape. One of the boys, Blup Choan, now a grown man laughed at how they managed to film all of it and added that two years ago he saw saola footprints. Rattan and honey collectors told of finding exhausted saola, which had been chased by their dogs and would subsequently die. Many exclaimed how wild animals used to go into their forest gardens, including the saola. 

On the other hand, some of the men knew the saola only in the form of trophies. 

The eldest of the group said that his parents told him a lot of saola stories when he was growing up in Laos just across the border. The others had all originated from Laos and had heard the same stories.

The group concurred that the noise of the Ho Chi Minh Highway had driven the shy animal deep into the forest where it hid upstream.

At lunchtime the men meandered off. We set off to meet a team of forest guards at a checkpoint on the notorious Ho Chi Minh Trail, now a highway, which we had just been discussing with the villagers I was left wondering what Uncle Ho, founder of the country’s first national park would say about the route today.

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Woman rests outside ceremonial house where Elizabeth met with community to talk about the saola.
© Elizabeth Kemp/ WWF-Greater Mekong Enlarge

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