1992, Laos – A remote team of scientists stumble across an unusual pair of horns on the wall of a village hut. Excitedly interrogating the residents, they confirm the discovery of a new species of animal, the first large land mammal discovered in fifty years – the saola.
Infrequently seen alive in the wild and only once kept briefly in captivity, saolas are considered to be The Last Unicorn, practically a mythological creature. They are so rare and elusive that they could be extinct and we wouldn’t know it. Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nature writer William deBuys set off with famed biologist William Robichaud into the wild mountain forests in the hopes of becoming the first Westerners to spot a saola – I’ll let you read it to find out if they did! But along the way, the expedition must tangle with belligerent poachers and unhelpful locals as well as untangle snares, traps, and the truth about the difficulties of conservation in a developing nation.
DeBuys gives us fascinating glimpse into a place that most of us will never go and a creature that we will never see. I particularly appreciated the bounty of photos to help the reader gain a clearer insight into his adventure. His eloquent writing also draws an in-depth background picture of saolas – the history of their region, the people cohabiting their habitat, and the culture that both reveres and hunts them. I was less impressed with deBuys’ interjections about his travel woes than his factual knowledge or even his philosophical musings on humans and nature, but it lightened the depressing parts (i.e. extinction) I guess.
Overall, an informative and engaging read for fans of nature and travel.