Where have all the saola gone?
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An half-century-old American folk song keeps going ‘round in my head as we set off for a Hmong village in the Annamite mountains on the Lao side of the Vietnam border.
The higher we climb along a mucky route carved through forest, Pete Seeger's 1961 protest folksong in my head becomes louder. I keep hearing: “Where have all the flowers gone?”, except the refrain has now become: “Where have all the saola gone, long time passing, where have all the saola gone, long time ago?”
I sing this to my Lao guides, who are all too young to remember the Second Indochina war, also known as the US/Vietnam war. They seem dismayed.
All along the route we see the signs of progress, sometimes picturesque in its contrasts, sometimes as poignant as the crushing of flowers underfoot.
The heavy rains have subsided but the roads to our destination have turned to sludge. As we wend our way past villagers planting rice with dibble sticks, I notice that one couple is planting in perfect harmony. He pierces the earth with a pair of long poles, and she deposits the grains. We observe this centuries old practice, noting that the man continues talking on his cell phone the entire time, yet never misses a thrust to the soil, softened by yesterday’s deluge.
On the horizon, I gaze past a huge pipeline carrying water from the reservoir of the Nam Theun 2 dam, towards the limestone cliffs of the Annamites. Several of their peaks have been hacked in half to build new roads and houses.
We overtake tourists pushing their motorbikes past construction teams clearing landslides. The route is now a slimy path, strewn with rocks and trees torn by torrents of mud from deforested mountainsides. The landslides are even worse in Vietnam, where the Ho Chi Minh Highway crisscrosses saola habitat.
The surviving populations of Critically Endangered saola are separated in far-flung forest patches. Its once, largely inaccessible forest home, has been so fragmented by roads, monoculture plantations, mining and dam construction, that viable populations may no longer exist.
After a hasty lunch of noodle soup, we arrive in Thongcare Village, whose ancestors migrated from Vu Quang some 200 years ago, according to the village chief’s wife. She dispatches our four forest guides to find the chief and obtain his permission to meet the hunters, while Seng, from WWF’s Greater Mekong Programme, and I wait anxiously in Thongcare.
Piglets suckle sows, large potbellied pigs that forage below and among the Lao houses, supported by wooden pylons. Many are being replaced with colourful cement homes. Every house has a satellite. Tractors, shiny new sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks rattle past, some on their way to their fields and others to the gold mining company.
Behind us, a faded poster displays the elusive saola. I hum to myself, “Where have all the saola gone? Gone to forests everyone. Where have all the forests gone? Gone to progress everyone…”
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