Book Review: The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures
by William DeBuys
Little, Brown and Company

It starts right in the middle of the “action” DeBuys is on a boat in the middle of the Nakai Reservoir, the lake formed by the construction of the Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project (NT2) in central Laos. The project is the largest hydroelectric power plant in the country, producing so much electricity that there’s a surplus available for export to Thailand. The reservoir is so new that trees in the flooded area are still standing, an eerie reminder of what was there.

The reservoir itself borders the Nakai–Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area. A percentage of revenue from the dam is supposed to be directed to conservation efforts there. And that area is where DeBuys is headed – to track down the elusive saola.

The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is one of the rarest large mammals in the world, living only in the mountains along the Laos-Vietnam border. It was first identified from trophy remains in 1992. A few were nabbed alive, but those didn’t survive long in captivity. Far too little is known about them to make captivity a worthwhile endeavor.

DeBuys shlepped into the forest in an effort to, at the very least, place camera traps and collect samples from remains for genetic analysis. He tries not to take sides in the Conservation vs. Development debate, but he can’t hide his enjoyment of the beauty and wonder that he finds himself in. He does slam the poachers who sneak in across the border from Vietnam and set up snare traps that kill indiscriminately and wastefully (a good portion of his trek is spent in removing the illegal snares for a bounty), and “traditional Chinese medicine” which ascribes magical healing and restorative properties to animal parts despite absolutely no scientific evidence for that at all.

(I wonder – would it be worthwhile to create a fake powdered rhino horn and sell it to the Chinese (just like they counterfeit all manner of non-Chinese goods) as the real deal? Could they tell the difference?)

His style is easy and clear, making for a pleasant and entertaining read. The book is a combination of adventure story, conservation tract, and ethnography. Rather than partake in the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth over the loss of biodiversity, he writes about trying not to get drunk on the local brew whenever there’s a celebration (there are a lot of celebrations). He is fair to the local villagers that he meets (except to the few guides and porters who keep pilfering his supplies). He notes that as a saying goes, they’ll eat anything with four legs except the table. To them, the saola is just another source of meat. What they want, or at least what the headman of one of the villages wants, is a road connecting their cluster of huts to the nearest thing resembling an actual town.

Of course, that would mean more incursions into the wilderness. But not building it would mean denying the villagers access to the same things that we all enjoy, from regular, reliable electricity to modern dental care. Where’s the balance?

There’s the nub of the problem. Wildlife conservation is a First World thing. For the people who deal with the animals directly, they’d rather not have lions carry off their livestock, elephants trample their crops, or some meddling do-gooder tell them what they can and cannot eat. Here in the northeastern US, we just have to worry about the occasional coyote scaring our pets and white-tailed deer trashing our gardens. And hunting for food means searching for the best deal at the supermarket.

It’s tough to have to ask poverty-stricken governments to spend more money patrolling forests or set aside more valuable land for nature refuges. Or local tribes to not kill this one particular type of animal just because. Ecotourism comes with its own problems. If a good balance between everyone’s needs – including those of wildlife itself – means carefully regulated trophy hunting (which quite a few conservationists approve of) as part of the plan, then so be it.

Heck, a number of the Lao villagers in the area already have saola trophies anyway…you can’t eat the horns…

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