Book Talk

How a Quest to Find a 'Unicorn' Changed One Man's Life

The saola, a small, antelope-like animal, is the “embodiment of magic in nature,” author says.

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When a camera trap photographed a saola in the wild in 2013, it was the first photograph of a saola in almost 14 years. This photo of a captive female saola was taken in central Laos in 1996.


In 2011, William deBuys, author of The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures, traveled to Laos in Southeast Asia on a quest for a creature nearly as rare as the mythical unicorn: a small, antelope-like animal known as a saola. Trekking through remote, mountainous jungle, existing on a diet of sticky rice and tea, he survived mutinous porters, backbreaking ascents, and marathon drinking sessions with the locals.

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The Last Unicorn book jacket

Speaking from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, deBuys describes what made him want to learn more about the saola; how his journey brought back memories of the Vietnam War years; how poachers threaten to drive the saola to extinction; and why the conservation of this rare creature matters to us all.

Your book is about a quest to find an animal you describe as “the embodiment of magic in nature.” What drew you to the story?

It was a strange path to get to the story, actually. I had done some work in Borneo on a forest where ex-captive orangutans are reintroduced to the wild. A fellow at the dinner where I gave my report called me when I was back in New Mexico and said, “How would you like to write about saola?” I said, “The what?”

He went on to explain how new the saola was to the Western world. What really caught me, though, was that he said it was beautiful and enigmatic and so little was known about it. So right away he cast the saola in a magical aura. And I was hungry to learn more.

Tell us about the saola—and how it connects with the myth of the unicorn.

The saola is actually a bovid. It has cloven hooves, is a ruminant and chews cud. Its closest evolutionary relatives, and they’re not very close, are wild cattle. The saola is distinguished by beautiful white cameo splashes on its muzzle, and beautiful bands of color on its tail and rump.

But what really makes it stand out are its long, nearly straight, tapered, and very sharply pointed horns. When a saola turns in profile, those two horns merge into one, giving it the appearance of a unicorn. Indeed, it is often called the Asian unicorn.

The Annamite Mountains of Laos, the saola’s last remaining habitat, is a place few of us will have heard of. Put us on the ground.

The border between Vietnam and Laos, or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as it is officially known, runs along the crest of the Annamite mountain chain. It functions like what we call in the Southwest United States a sky island. These are mountains that don’t connect to other mountains in a continuous chain like the Rocky Mountains. Instead, their high-altitude habitats are like islands surrounded by lowland seas.

For that reason, and because they’ve been geologically stable for a very long time, they have a kind of island biogeography with very high rates of endemism among the creatures found there—in other words, creatures that are found there and nowhere else. It’s been said that the saola is the largest mammal with the smallest habitat in the world.

When was the saola discovered? And by whom?

A group of scientists in 1992 were making a biological survey of the Vu Quang Nature Reserve in Vietnam. They were in country where scientists had possibly never been, and certainly hadn’t been for many decades. So their expedition was rich in biological finds.

The most remarkable thing they encountered was a pair of long, straight, pointed horns hung on the wall of a hunter’s shack in a village close to the Lao border. They inquired and they began to hear about what was described to them as a mountain goat. It turned out not to be a goat. But that was the first information that anyone outside its habitat had had about saola in nearly a century.

A French lexicographer in the early 1900s had recorded the word “saola” in his Lao-French dictionary. But that passing reference was overlooked by the world. So the appearance of the saola in world science in 1992 came as a complete surprise.

One of the characteristics of the saola that endeared it to you is its almost Buddhistic calm.

That’s right. It’s maybe its most singular characteristic. The fellow who led the expedition I went on, Bill Robichaud, happened to be in the company of a captive saola in 1996 for two weeks and was able to observe this animal very closely and even go into its enclosure. He said the saola was calmer and more serene than any sheep or goat or cow he had known on the Wisconsin farms where he had grown up.

Some people have said that saola was probably suffering from what they call post-capture myopathy, which is a fancy way of describing the phenomenon of shock. But while Robichaud was there, a man walked by the enclosure with his pet dog. As soon as the saola scented the dog, it went into a high state of arousal. It lowered its head, bellowed, and took a defensive posture. The wild dogs of Southeast Asia, the dhole, are the single most serious predator for saola, so the animal is hardwired to react in this way. But it was so calm with Robichaud that he was able to pick ticks out of its ears.

You were 61 when you set out on this epic journey through the jungle. By your own admission, you felt worried whether you could manage. Describe some of the challenges.

Most of the guides and porters on the expedition were teenagers or in their twenties, and everybody was quite fit. We were in pretty tough terrain: steep, thickly vegetated, often with only game trails to follow. And one thing about aging is that your balance begins to erode. Crossing rivers or gulches on fallen trees, a slip off the log to the river rocks ten feet below could’ve been pretty severe.

I also came from the dry Southwest where I’m fairly well physically adapted, and found the humidity and heat of Laos really tough. I would be walking along looking like I had just crawled out of the river, soaked with my own sweat, while other members of the expedition would not have so much as a bead of sweat on their foreheads—even though they were wearing wool clothes and turtlenecks! [Laughs]

When a saola turns in profile, its two horns merge into one, giving it the appearance of a unicorn.

Saola country is also leech country. So you have to always be on the lookout for those tricky little bloodsuckers. In that part of the world there are two kinds of leeches. One crawls up your leg from the ground. There’s a smaller species of leech, though, up in the canopies of the trees, which falls onto you from above. And you certainly don’t want a leech crawling into your ear.

The greatest threat to the saola and other wildlife comes from Vietnamese poachers. Describe their modus operandi and how they connect to the illegal trade in wild animals and hardwoods across Southeast Asia.

The illegal trade in Nakai Nam Theun [National Protected Area] goes back to the ’80s. First, the poachers from Vietnam were crossing the mountain in search of eaglewood, a hardwood that produces a much-prized incense. When eaglewood ran out, they refocused on rosewood. The rosewood is now pretty much cleaned out, so they began taking out more and more animals. If they saw a tiger, they shot it; if they saw an elephant, they shot it and took the ivory.

These days, organized gangs of a dozen or so men at a time will cross from Vietnam, go into the forests of Laos, and build snare lines along a mountain ridge or across a canyon. These are hedges of chopped brush that can be more than a kilometer long, with gaps every three meters or so. In each gap there is a foot snare: a loop of bicycle brake cable, camouflaged in the leaves, with a trigger. If an animal steps on the trigger, its foot will be snared in the noose and the trigger will release a spring-pull that will flip up into the air and leave the animal hanging there to die a slow, painful death by thirst and shock.

The same snare that will hold a deer can be triggered by a foot as light as that of a pheasant or a jungle fowl. Consequently, all manner of creatures are caught. These snare lines are the greatest single threat to the survival of saola as a species.

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The dhole, or Asiatic wild dog, is the saola’s most serious predator.


Another story, of America’s most controversial modern conflict, flows under the main narrative. How did the Vietnam War inform your journey?

I am of the age of the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. I was nearly drafted into the Army, but I flunked my physical. I always felt that I had only very nearly escaped that fate of going to Vietnam and that I was, in a way, undeservedly luckier than so many of my contemporaries. So, going into this habitat, I felt in a way I was having a glimpse of a past I never had to live. As we moved through the jungle, we saw bomb craters or scraps of aluminium, probably from a spent fuel tank or a crashed airplane.

You also sensed the legacy of the war in the ongoing problem in Laos and Vietnam of unexploded ordnance. The United States dropped tens of millions of cluster bombs on Laos. Each bomb would contain two or three hundred so-called bombies, about the size of a grapefruit, which would be scattered over a huge area. They had a terrible detonation rate, so millions of them lay unexploded and still live in the landscape. They’ve injured tens of thousands of Lao people, including many children.

When there are so many species threatened with extinction closer to home, from monarch butterflies to polar bears, why should we care about a creature in a country few of us will ever see?

If we care about the diversity of life, whether from a scientific or a religious point of view, one has to look at Southeast Asia. No other region of the world has so high a rate of endemism—that is to say, animals and plants found only there. No other region in the world has so high a rate of endangerment among its biota, either. The diversity of species in Southeast Asia puts anything you might find in North America or Europe to shame.

Do we know if the saola still exists?

We know that on September 7, 2013, two and a half years after Robichaud and I came out of the forest, a camera trap photographed a living saola. This was the first photograph of a saola in almost 14 years. Villagers had continued to report sightings of saola occasionally. But this was the first tangible, indisputable evidence of saola that anyone had seen for quite some time.

I learned something I hadn’t known before about the balancing of fatalism with optimism in life.

Although you never saw a saola, your quest to find one changed your life. How?

The quest is perhaps the oldest story in human literature, whether it’s the Odyssey or Gilgamesh or the Jews leaving Egypt and looking for the Promised Land. We have quest stories deep in our cultural bones. But in many cases the quest doesn’t end with finding the thing that was initially sought. That was true of our quest in Nakai Nam Theun. But we found something else. We had an encounter with deep beauty. And this encounter changed my life. I learned something I hadn’t known before about the balancing of fatalism with optimism in life, and making those two opposites cohabit peacefully in my own heart.

I think that’s part of the problem of contemporary existence, whether you’re thinking about climate change, or war and strife, or the protection of biological diversity on Earth. We know the situation is bad. But we need to remain dedicated to making it better, even though the odds are stacked against us.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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