Sunday, September 05, 2021

Book Review: The Last Unicorn

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

deBuys, William (2015: Little, Brown and Company, 364pp.)

Anyone pondering trekking into the wild after a rare or reported animal will learn what it’s like in deBuys’ account of his travels in search of the saola. The saola or Vu Quang ox (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) was discovered only in 1992.  With a small team led by conservation biologist William Robichaud, journalist deBuys sets off to survey the watershed of a river called Nam Nyang, a place no Westerner has ever seen.  The team wants to examine probable saola habitat, understand the health of the ecosystem, collect as much information as they can to support conservation, and remove the snares and traps of poachers when they can. The journey by boat and foot into central Laos includes an unending series of dangers, including unreliable companions, treacherous terrain, and unexploded bombs. Yet the author finds, and memorably chronicles, human friendship and natural beauty even in the most trying of circumstances.  

Elsewhere in this book, deBuys chronicles the discovery and confirmation of the saola and the other new mammals from Vietnam and Laos. He explains how little science knows about the needs, range, habits, and characteristics of wild-living saolas. Occasional kills or lucky captures, plus some camera-trap photos, are all science has to go on. 

The author also describes the precarious context, natural, economic, and political, in which the animal and its remaining habitat exist. The saola's already-tiny population appears to be shrinking.  Poachers don't target saolas, but snares are indisciminate, and legal and illegal resource extraction is nudging deeper into the remote and relatively undisturbed regions of the country.

One Laotian guide mentions the phi kong koy, a red-haired, humanlike primate known as nguoi rung in Vietnam. Everyone, it seems, believes in this animal, although deBuys meets no eyewitnesses.

The party ends its trip without seeing a saola, but accomplishes its other objectives, and one of the fortunate legacies is this gripping and informative book.   

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