Western eyes saw a living saola (pronounced “sow la”) for the first time only 20 years ago. She was a captive named Martha, a stocky rainforest-dwelling mammal with two straight horns, found in the mountain forests of Laos.
Martha coincidentally was also the name of the last passenger pigeon that died in 1914 in the US. Martha the saola and her kind are also on the same path as the pigeons. They are the subject of The Last Unicorn, a gripping and sad tale of exploration and conservation by environmental journalist William de Buys.
De Buys writes that saola “belong to a different universe”. Related to cows and antelope, saola likely evolved before the two lineages became distinct. First discovered by Western science in 1992, they have been seen a handful of times since, and it has been estimated there are between 70 and 700 left in the world.
If the low counts are correct, the saola are gone. By February 2011, when de Buys ventures into the mountains of Laos, there is no certainty that saola still exist.
Writer de Buys joins an expedition led by Southeast Asian conservation expert William Robichaud, accompanied by a rabble of Lao scientists, park managers, local guides and porters. Their purpose: to find out if saola still roam one of the largest protected areas in Laos. Their journey takes them into the remote rainforests of the Annamite mountains, home to “one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet”.
But all is not well in these mountain forests shared with Vietnam. Only 50 years ago they were home to tigers, elephants, clouded leopards, douc monkeys and gibbons – but the forests have been emptied. The last rhino in Vietnam was found dead, murdered for her horn, in 2010.
Everything in these forests has a price, from precious rosewood ($8,500 per cubic metre) to golden turtles ($10,000 per kilogram, more than the local annual income), to rhino horn ($65 per gram). Here the sixth mass extinction is driven not by climate change or habitat loss, but by hunger and consumerism, a process that began long ago in the Western world, and that is now catching up in developing Asia.
The saola is not directly threatened by the trade but is caught up in the kilometres of snares laid by illegal poachers for more lucrative game. In one snare, de Buys encounters the remains of a douc monkey and describes its terrible last moments.
Notionally the saola is protected, but on the ground de Buys finds there is little will and less money in Laos to enforce bans on poaching.
Despite the gloomy subject matter, The Last Unicorn is an engaging and thoughtful travelogue, and a fascinating insight into conserving the world’s remaining wildlife.
James Whitmore is a Melbourne-based editor and writer.
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