THE LAST UNICORN by William deBuys

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“A book you simply must read” Jane Goodall

A limited number of signed copies are available throughCollected Works Bookstorein Santa Fe.

An award-winning author’s stirring quest to find and understand an elusive and exceptionally rare species in the heart of Southeast Asia’s jungles.

In 1992, in a remote mountain range, a team of scientists discovered the remains of an unusual animal with beautiful long horns. It turned out to be a living species new to western science-a saola, the first large land mammal discovered in 50 years.

Rare then and rarer now, no westerner had glimpsed a live saola before Pulitzer Prize finalist and nature writer William deBuys and conservation biologist William Robichaud set off to search for it in the wilds of central Laos. The team endured a punishing trek, up and down whitewater rivers and through mountainous terrain ribboned with the snare lines of armed poachers.

In the tradition of Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, and Peter Matthiessen, THE LAST UNICORN is deBuys’s look deep into one of the world’s most remote places. As in the pursuit of the unicorn, the journey ultimately becomes a quest for the essence of wildness in nature, and an encounter with beauty.


  • "THE LAST UNICORN is a book you simply must read. For one thing Bill deBuys has a real gift for storytelling. And this story, the quest for an animal that was driven to the point of extinction almost as soon as it was "discovered", is a true adventure. Bill's powerful prose leads us deep into the wilderness in an almost unknown part of the world. And it sends out a clarion call bidding us to redouble our efforts to save the last wild places and vanishing animals before it is utterly too late." —Jane Goodall, Ph.D., DBE, Founder, the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace

    "THE LAST UNICORN celebrates the marvels of the great forest and its wildlife, and William deBuys enlivens its pages with perceptive accounts of local people and cultures. Inspired and entranced by visions of the saola, DeBuys examines what little is known of its enigmatic life as he searches the landscape for glimpses of what we must hope is an enduring future for the natural treasures surviving in these remote mountains." —George Schaller, author of Tibet Wild; VP, Panthera; and senior conservationist, Wildlife Conservation Society

    "This is a great excuse for an adventure — and having taken the excuse, Bill deBuys delivers. What a wonderful account of a 19th century drama in the 21st century, a story the likes of which we may never read again." —Bill McKibben, author of Wandering Home

    "Imagine Joseph Conrad, Bruce Chatwin, and Paul Theroux writing the most poignant allegory of our time, a quest for the rarest mammal on earth in one of the most hidden places in the world. The newly discovered saola, a zoological will-o'-the-wisp, is being extinguished by poachers before it is known. In a world that grasps for too much, deBuys's austere and tender prose becomes the plaintive voice for the myriad forms of life being monetized and forever extinguished." —Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest

    "It would be an understatement to call a forest, in all its deep complexity, merely beautiful. The same goes for THE LAST UNICORN. As he tracks a living myth through the jungles of Laos, deBuys' eyes and ears miss nothing, and his poetic grace conveys everything. I haven't read a journey so epic, lyrical, and meaningful since Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard." —Alan Weisman, author of Countdown and The World Without Us

    "In a world of space satellites, robots, drones and remote controlled cameras, terrestrial ecosystems around the world are yielding their secrets. Large land animals, especially charismatic ones, cannot evade our prying instruments. With humans occupying most of the planet, could there possibly be a large, beautiful land mammal yet to be documented by Science? This book is a stunning scientific thriller, the story of how researchers, tipped off by hints of a fabulous creature, find the remains of a mysterious animal, tracked this elusive mammal into remote, unforgiving wild land to prove its existence. What a read!" —Dr. David Suzuki, author of The Sacred Balance

    "THE LAST UNICORN is exhaustively researched, and the trip alone would have made for a riveting read. But it is written with such poetry that it comes as a heart-wrenching wakeup. This book is a beautifully told account of the devastating fact that man alone has relentlessly set about destroying the earth's wildness. It should be required reading for the human race." —Ali MacGraw, actress/activist

  • Prologue

    Strange paths lead to unexpected places, and sometimes the world opens up. Early in 2009 I researched efforts in central Borneo to protect a forest where captive orangutans were freed and reintroduced into the wild. Months later, I gave a brief talk on the project to a roomful of strangers in Washington, DC. One of those strangers, Jack Tordoff, telephoned the following week. He asked, "How would you like to write about saola?"

    "About what?"

    I had never heard the word saola spoken.

    Tordoff explained that saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) were among the rarest large animals on Earth and that they became known to Western science only in 1992. He said they constituted the sole species of a unique genus of bovids — grazing animals that include antelopes, goats, cattle, bison, and other ruminants. He added that they lived under constant threat, mainly from illegal snaring, in their limited range in the Annamite Mountains that divide Vietnam and Laos. He also said that they were beautiful, enigmatic, and, for him as well as many other conservation biologists, inspiring. Tordoff invited me to attend a meeting of the Saola Working Group, or SWG, a subunit of the Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in Vientiane, Laos, in August of 2009.

    The meeting’s energetic and dedicated coordinator was Bill Robichaud, a field biologist experienced in Southeast Asia, particularly Laos. Robichaud and I began a conversation that continued stateside. Eventually, in February and March of 2011, I was privileged to join Robichaud on a journey, recounted here, into remote corners of the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area in Laos, hard by the international border with Vietnam. Our expedition had multiple purposes, principally involving reconnaissance of potential saola habitat and evaluation of poaching pressure. Our mission was also "diplomatic" in the sense that it was intended to build support for wildlife conservation among indigenous villagers living or hunting where saola might be found. Overall we hoped to advance priorities identified by Robichaud and his SWG colleagues and to contribute in some way, no matter how small, to the group’s paramount goal, which was — and remains — to save the saola from extinction.

    Joined by two Lao university students, and later by a staff member of the agency responsible for the protected area, we traveled by car from Vientiane to Nakai, a frontier town roughly hewn from the forest of central Laos, and thence by boat across the vast reservoir of the Nam Theun 2 Hydroelectric Project. We continued upriver into the Annamite Mountains, which are known as the Sayphou Louang in Laos and whose crest forms the international border with Vietnam. We hiked overland to the village of Ban Tong and procured new boats to take us up another river, the Nam Pheo, to the farthest village reachable by boat. There we lingered several days before hiring guides and porters to accompany us on a trek into the vast backcountry, beyond the frontiers of the village world. Our destination was the canyon-cut watershed of yet another river, the Nam Nyang, a land where we hoped to find evidence of living saola and upon which blue Western eyes like Robichaud’s and mine had never gazed.

  • February 24

    Nam Theun Reservoir

    We strike out across the drowned forest in a narrow, battered launch that draws no water except when heavily laden, as it now is with our camp gear and food. A white sky silvers the surface of the water. We squat in silence among the bundles, wrapped like Bedouins against the sun. There is no point in talking. The chain-saw racket of the engine drones tonelessly, incessantly.

    Our quarry is an animal known only in a small, remote patch of the planet, an animal known mainly for being unknown. We have no idea if we will find it. The odds, we know, are against us.

    The boatman steers through treetops that puncture the surface of the reservoir, down lanes known only to him. We skim the forest at bird level, scraping the edges of canopies whose branches supplicate the sky in a final leafless gesture. We pass a copse of bamboo, its stems arcing upward like antennae. The woody shafts dance and clatter in our wake. Farther along rises a solitary dipterocarp, a hardwood tree considered majestic even by the standards of this timber-rich region. Its thick trunk is charred by fire from years earlier, before the forest was drowned. I shout a question to Robichaud. He yells back, "Not much lightning around here. Probably villagers collecting resin started that one, and it got away from them."

    Robichaud sits against a bag of rice in the bow, binoculars at the ready. A rule of expeditions like this one holds that the best observer goes first in line, on water or on land. You never know what you might see. Maybe the next bird in the sky is the last white-winged duck in central Laos. Maybe it’s a fish eagle never before reported for this particular place. Maybe you will have no more than a second to bring up the glasses and make the ID. For the habitat where we are headed, you can count on a carpenter’s hand the other people in the world who might have a quicker or more knowledgeable eye than Robichaud, and none of them is in the boat. Robichaud has been wandering the forests on the far side of this lake for decades. We are days away from saola habitat, but he is tense with pleasure on this morning of new beginning. Behind him in the boat, I see only his back, but he is sitting as straight and attentive as a bird dog on its way to a hunt.

    I am next in line, assigned to a low, bare thwart, vainly seeking comfort among the backpacks and bundles piled fore and aft. There is no extra room and precious little freeboard. The boat is tippy, easily rocked. I am learning that if I stretch out a knee, my back soon complains; if I bring in my leg and lean back, the knee begins to ache. The only thing to do is move the pain from place to place.

    We have two, maybe three hours to cross the reservoir and ply our way upstream along a narrow river to Ban Makfeuang. Ban means "place" or "village." Makfeuang, to me, is indecipherable, a mouthful of sound without meaning. I have never been there, nor, I imagine, anyplace like it. From Ban Makfeuang, we will hike some hours to another village, Ban Tong, where we hope to hire other boats to take us up a second river to Ban Nameuy, beyond which we will sleep in the forest. The names of these places sit on my tongue like the seeds of an exotic fruit. I do not know whether to swallow them or spit them out.

    Behind me, side by side on another thwart, are the boys, Olay and Touy, both of them Lao. They are not boys, really, but young men, one just out of university, the other in his last semesters, though both are younger than my own children. Jammed together in the narrow boat, they have zipped their rain jackets to the chin, although there is no threat of rain. They are as new to each other as they are to me, and it is good to see in their glances and gestures that they are becoming friends. While Touy hails from a royal family of prerevolutionary Laos, Olay is the son of a man born with no social advantages. Now they pass a small camera back and forth and smile modestly when I twist around to look at them.

    Behind the boys is Simeuang — lithe, athletic, and ever smiling. Also Lao, he is nearly as young as they are yet possesses a soft and centered gravitas. His presence makes our journey official — and permissible. Hailing from Pakxe, a city on the Mekong River in the south of Laos, he works for the Watershed Management and Protection Authority, the WMPA, which came into being as part of the colossal hydropower project that inundated the forest and created the reservoir we are traversing. The WMPA decrees what may and may not be done in the forests on the far side of the reservoir, which stretch away to a mountainous, cloud-hung horizon we cannot see, past which lies Vietnam. These forests are rich with wildlife and also with people.

    Last of all is the boatman, whose face, shrouded by a towel he drapes beneath his hat, is as grave as Charon’s. The din of the engine hammers upon him; the long tiller vibrates in his hand. His work is to ferry people and their freight from the dusty town of Nakai, possessed of electricity and a cacophonous market, across the glassy lake and up its tributaries to villages that perch on sandy riverbanks, their houses built on stilts even where floods are not in prospect. These are the homes of "hill tribes," in the terminology of an earlier time; the people of the villages are nowadays — and no more helpfully — referred to as "ethnics" or "ethnic people."

    The boat that carries us is a blunt-nosed pirogue, about twenty-five feet long, with a squared stern, where the engine hangs. In design, it is a direct descendant of the dugout canoe, good for navigating the twists and turns of shallow rivers. Sturdy planks have replaced the tree trunk of the original, and a gasoline engine endows the new creation with speed, commotion, and a name: this kind of craft is called a chak hang, which translates as "motor tail," a term that aptly describes the long driveshaft slanting backwards from the engine, which ends in a two-bladed propeller hardly bigger than your hand. The shallow slant of the driveshaft keeps the propeller only barely submerged, the better to avoid the rocks and sandbars of the riverbeds. When the boatman opens the throttle, the engine screams, and the prop shoots up a gleaming rooster tail of water, which is the first thing you see when you sight a chak hang at a distance.

    Once upon a time, certainly years before the dam was closed and the forest flooded, our chak hang sported a handsome coat of royal-blue paint, which age and abrasion have since faded to the color of worn-out jeans. The color seems not so much painted on the boat as infused into the fibers of its wood. Were an artist to paint this scene, with its hard-boiled sky, the mirroring water, and forlorn treetops, the weathered boat would give the canvas its only life. Chased by our rooster tail of spray, we are a lone dash of color advancing into the dissolving distance. Soon we, too, will be absorbed by the hazy land.