Oudomesouk Village, Khammouane Province, Laos
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“If they smell humans, the saola go away, “ Outha Vongsa, leader of the Division of Wildlife and Aquatics in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, told me. He has spent years carrying out research in the forests, karst limestone cliffs and wetlands of Khammouane Province located in the centre of Laos. His focus is the Kha Nyou, or rock rat, discovered in 1996. The rat joins a long list of new species discovered in the Annamites in the past two decades. It is a special find as it represents an entire new family of mammals.
The unusual looking rodent was for sale in a local market, lying next to an assortment of vegetables, when Dr Rob Timmins of the Wildlife Conservation Society realized the mammal was different to any mammal he had ever seen. At the time, Timmins and his colleagues were carrying out biodiversity surveys in the Khammouan Limestone National Biodiversity Conservation Area.
On our journey to ‘saola land’ we drove past limestone cliffs, which local hunters scale to set traps for the rats, which are much more numerous than the saola but not as striking as the saola with its long long straight horns and white striped face, which have captivated hunters.
Outha emphasized that hunting is a problem, but not as threatening as illegal logging and infrastructure development in the Annamites. Today, I am in Oudomesouk, a village in Khammouane Province on the edge of the 45,000 ha Nam Theun 2 reservoir created by the construction of one Laos’ largest hydroelectric schemes. Locals here tell me that when construction of the barrage began the saola disappeared.
We visited one of the 16 villages relocated before the area was flooded. An elderly woman returning home from planting her paddy, about 1 kilometer away from her family’s new house, said her family had no saola horns to show us and that most of the villagers had never hunted the saola.
Another woman we met, from one of 31 enclave villages still inside the Nam Theun Protected Area, was struggling to get a recalcitrant pig and her mate and a case of beer into her canoe. The pigs put up a struggle. Eventually they were led down to the shore of the reservoir. She exclaimed that it would take her at least a day to get back to her village.
We wanted to go with her to the villages deep in the forest, but the authorities warned that it would be too difficult for us to make the boat trip and the trek up and down the slippery slopes. I looked longingly as the woman made her way down a path of sludge towards the water, hoping we would fare better in neighbouring Bolisamxay Province with the sunshine on our side in the morning. As I write, heavy rain is creating pools the size of small ponds outside of the window of the guesthouse where we have taken refuge for the night.
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