How the saola got its name



Posted on 09 July 2013  | 
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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Diary entry 9

A thought occurs to me: It doesn’t take a village. It takes a woman.

“Seng”, I ask, “Can you help me find a spinning wheel and a weaver?“ His response is to phone our guides. They return shortly and inform us they have found a hunter willing to tell us about a saola that his dogs trapped. We thank the village chief’s wife and rush to our vehicle. The driver navigates deep streams until we reach a couple of families panning for gold, with makeshift equipment spewing water into their handmade baskets that filter for nuggets.

One of the panners is coaxed away from his work and propped up against a mountainous backdrop of forest gouged by a large mining concession. He announces that he “caught a saola in 1985”, 27 years ago, but that he can’t find the horns since he moved house. I implore that we visit his house and the other hunters in the next village, where six sets of horns are reportedly held.

The forestry group admits that this is the end of my search for the saola. If I get in the jeep they will show me the former hunter’s house. I realize that the trappers are reluctant to display their trophies because they might be confiscated or stolen, or else they have sold them. This is the case on both sides of the border. Moreover, it dawns on me that the Hmong village is off limits.

We return to Thoncare where the men uncover a large loom underneath a wooden traditional Lao house. One of the men holds up a spinning wheel like a saola trophy itself. They disperse in search of the weaver.

Miraculously, a woman wrapped in a hand woven mauve sarong emerges from the stream, her skin shimmering from her evening bath. She tells me her name is Bounkieng. She cross-examines the men, then appears to berate them, shaking the spindle like a rag doll. I did not need to speak Lao to know that she was informing them that the spindle was new, not at all like the instrument from which the saola got its name.

Within minutes she wipes the cobwebs from a dusty spinning wheel, raising the wooden spindle above her head triumphantly. She directs leads us to her house, fetching cotton and manipulates the old instrument with deft fingers. Her children stand behind her in a low-slung doorway.

I ask her to explain how the saola got its name. She taps each of the long straight parallel posts (sao), which support the spindle (la). The sturdy tapered supports resemble the saola’s horns.

“Do your children know about the saola”, I ask, nodding towards five youngsters in the background. “No”. She replies. “The last time I saw one I was ten years old. I am 45 now”. We did the math. She spun cotton thread on her trophy spindle, and then wove on her loom set in the middle of a construction site, the foundation for her new cement house. At last, I saw a “sao la”.

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Local tells how the saola was named.
© Elizabeth Kemf/ WWF-Greater Mekong Enlarge

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