Animal rescue on the Ho Chi Minh TrailA Sau, Vietnam: Nguyen Van Tri Tin, or Mr Sao La, as he is affectionately called by his colleagues, guided us through 'forgotten' villages in the Troung Son mountain range, which separates Vietnam from Laos. Here, not far from the ancient imperial capital of Hue, live some of the world's rarest animals. We were in search of the sao la (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), a primitive bovid that captured world attention when it was found at the Vu Quang Nature Reserve in 1992, and the giant muntjac, a species of deer discovered in the same reserve in 1994. Although the skulls and horns of the animals are found in many village houses of Thua Thien Hue province, sightings of these rare species are hardly ever reported. This part of the country, in the A Luoi valley in Western Vietnam, was badly damaged during the US/Vietnam conflict. This 60 kilometre stretch of the largely riverine valley along the Ho Chi Minh trail used by Viet Cong fighters from North Vietnam to infiltrate the US-backed South is not far from Hamburger Hill, one of the most heavily bombed battlefields of the war. The valley lost some 100,000 hectares of forest when it was sprayed with the deadly defoliant Agent Orange to prevent Viet Cong troops from using it.
I first visited A Luoi in 1987 to document the environmental effects of the war. My return visit more than a decade later was to see how the people and their forests were faring. The recovery of the region has been slow and the majority of people still live at a low subsistence level. They hunt, fish, collect wild plants, and farm to survive.
Tin and the foresters in A Luoi have been working with the villagers for about two years. In 1996 they started to exhibit drawings of the sao la and other rare species in schools, community centres, and the market place, asking villagers to help them find and protect the rare animals and to stop hunting them. The villagers, who are the original scientists of the area with their own systems of traditional knowledge, told us about the ecology and biology of the animals, and offered to help.
Thus, it was that in late May this year, three young boys, the eldest just 16, reported finding a live sao la on a hunting expedition with their dogs. 'Mr Sao La' rushed off with them to find the animal trapped in a ravine accessible only along a slippery ridge inside a deep evergreen forest. Within hours, a team of scientists, led by the Ta Oi youth who had found the animal, joined forces to record on film for the first time a sao la in the wild and to release the pregnant female back into the forest.
The Forestry Department turned the video tape over to its national television station, and the whole of Vietnam watched the rescue operation on their TV screens, spellbound by the event. They knew it was a huge sacrifice for the impoverished people of A Luoi to free an animal they would normally have killed and eaten.
Five months ago some villagers had brought an injured live male sao la to the district but it had died within two hours. This time the local residents and conservationists were taking no chances.
I wish everyone would think as these people and set the sao la or other animals like this free. I wish they would protect the forest where it lives, said Hoang Ngoc Khanh, Chief of the Thua Thien Hue Forestry Control Department. And I wish the people had enough food and better conditions so they would not have to hunt it for survival.
Whether or not Khanh's dream will come true remains to be seen. Killing of the rare species, although forbidden, is extremely difficult to regulate, especially after years of subsistence hunting. But the release rather than the death of the female sao la, soon to bear a calf, signals hope. The children of the Truong son range took the future of the sao la into their hands, and this is where its survival lies. More than twenty years after the end of the Vietnam war, return to the Ho Chi Minh Trail revealed that although recovery was slow, there was some promise.
*Elizabeth Kemf is WWF's Species Policy Information Officer based in Gland, Switzerland