Bohoong Village, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam
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“The saola is a very smart animal,” forest guard Vien Xuan Lien, 33, told me yesterday. “It has gone deeper and deeper into the forest and hides from people as soon as it hears or smells them.” Lien who is of Ta Aoi origin is part of the 20 man team of forest guards, which goes into action every day to collect, record and destroy the snares of trappers and traders in the Saola Nature Reserve west of Hue near the Lao border.
Lien knows what he is talking about because he was once a hunter who stalked the saola and other wildlife in search of food for his family much like his ancestors had done for centuries. Whenever a hunter bagged a saola or a Truong Son muntjac, the whole village celebrated and shared the meat. The hunters hung the trophies on their walls and displayed them with great pride.
We met Lien and four other members of the saola forest guard patrol on the edge of a forest checkpoint located at the entry to one of the tunnels recently built as part of the Ho Chi Minh Highway. At the other end of the passageway – which bisected a huge chunk of saola territory -- the 5-man patrol, one of four WWF/ Saola Forest Guard units, showed us their new ranger station, still under construction. The guards will be well-placed to catch any wildlife traders or illegal loggers as they attempt to smuggle their contraband out of the forest and into the bushmeat market and timber trade.
Except for Lien and his wife, the other forest guards have never seen a saola. His wife saw a saola in a snare in 2005 after villagers told her there was one caught in a trap. Lien himself was collecting honey in 1999, when he found one dead in a snare. “They used to come to our forest gardens and there were a lot up until 1997 and 1998. I still think they are out there, but they are very cunning animals. If we can keep destroying the snares, and the number of traps has been decreasing since we started work in early 2011, I think the animals will survive” he states passionately.
Briu Bia, 58, a Ta Oi hunter in Bohong village, whom we met today is not so sure. Briu pointed out, like Lien, that “the saola is very smart. He knows how to avoid some kinds of snares. He is also mysterious and clever. I used to observe him rubbing the sides of his cheeks where his glands are between two small trees. Afterwards I tried to figure out what the animal was doing. The branches stank”.
I showed him the photos that I took of Huu’s trophy in Vu Quang and asked him to look at the back of the skull, especially the teeth. “I remember. They are just like a cow’s”, he said excitedly. I remarked that scientists classified the saola as a member of the cattle family, millions of years old. He appeared pensive and said: “Outsiders and professional and commercial hunters and buyers from Hue are coming here. Even a policeman bought a trophy”.
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