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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book Review: The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures

"When seen in profile, the saola's horns merge into one, and the animal becomes single-horned - a unicorn by perspective.  Like that other one-horned beast, it stands close to being the apotheosis of the ineffable, the embodiment of magic in nature.  Unlike the unicorn, however, the saola s corporeal.  It lives, and it can die."

If the scientific community was surprised by the okapi, a solitary forest ungulate related to the giraffe, discovered in the Congo at the turn of the last century, than it was surely dumbfounded by the saola.  Inhabiting only a few slivers of rainforest straddling the border of Laos and Vietnam, the saola (with the secondary, less-elegant name of Vu Quang Ox) is a primitive, wild-cow like creature, only discovered in 1992.  It was never been seen by a western scientist in the wild, with local peoples, camera traps, and a few (very short-lived) captive specimens presenting us with the scant knowledge that we have.

In The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures, author William deBuys isn't the one to break the saola's elusive winning streak.  The animal itself never crosses the authors path as he treks through the Laotian jungles.  Instead, deBuys, accompanied by wildlife biologist Bill Robichaud, seek to explore the haunts of one of the world's least known - and most endangered - animals.  In doing so, they seek new knowledge that may be used to help protect an animal that is at risk of becoming extinct almost as soon as the world learned it existed.

The Last Unicorn is an enjoyable travelogue of life in Southeast Asia, where all recent history (including, it may be, the imperilment of the saola) lies under the shadow of the Vietnam War.  DeBuys offers a fascinating peak of what it truly means to be involved in the study and conservation of endangered species in the wild.  Seldom is it the Jane Goodall world of sitting in a clearing while animals carry on all around you.  Instead, it is often a long, hard, brutal slog through an unforgiving landscape with the faintest of hopes that you will even catch a glimpse of your quarry.

It also provides an insight that many westerners may lack about conservation efforts in the developing world.  When Robichaud visits villages, he wants to talk about saola (several of which, he knows or suspects, are poached by those villagers), but he also knows that conservation of an obscure (though breathtakingly beautiful) animal isn't the top priority of those villagers.  They want to talk about roads and bridges and dams... which could in turn let more poachers have more access to more animals.  Robichaud's challenge is to make the saola worth more alive than dead.

If there was one thing that I found disappointing about The Last Unicorn, it's how little the saola actually appears in it.  I know that the author is largely writing about what he experienced during his trip (which, spoiler alert, does not include a saola), but I was really hoping to learn more about the animal itself.  That being said, maybe I should cut deBuys some slack on the grounds that very little really is known about the saola.  Most of Robichaud's knowledge comes from a captive specimen that lived for a short time in a private collection, and it's those reminiscences that I enjoy the most, as they provide the most insight into the animal.

I recently actually heard Bill Robichaud give a lecture on the saola and found it fascinating.  One of the most intriguing ideas was the suggestion that an emergency captive breeding program be set up in Southeast Asia, similar to the breeding station for okapi that exist in the Congo.  It was a position that I wasn't expecting to hear him take (one that I never had considered, really) considering the poor track record of saola in captivity so far.  Admittedly, those have been wounded, stressed-out animals not being cared for by a professional staff.  Robichaud surprised me, though, saying that, even if poaching were stopped this instant, the remaining populations may be too small and too fragmented to support the species long-term.  Captive breeding and intensive management may be the species' only hope.

Oscar Wilde had an old maxim, one that deBuys trots out and applies to Robichaud - the sign of a first rate mind is to be able to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.  Robichaud - and indeed most conservationists - have to be realistic about the dangers that animals face, while also hopeful that it's not too late and that they can be saved.  The first step towards saving a species, however, is knowing that it needs our help.  We may not really meet the saola in The Last Unicorn, but the tantalizing glimpses of it that we are given still serve as a call to arms.,204,203,200_.jpg

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