Books: Searching for a Magical Creature, Finding a Need for Wild Places


In May 1992, a team of field biologists set out to survey a remote patch of wilderness along the western border of Vietnam. After nine days on the trail, the group was running low on food, so two members were dispatched to a nearby village to stock up on provisions.

The two men were merely hoping to buy vegetables, but on the wall of a hunter’s shack, they stumbled across something spectacular: a pair of long horns, sleek, sharp and straight. The biologists had never seen anything like them.

The horns belonged to a saola, a species of wild ox previously unknown to science. “Suddenly, the scientific world had before it proof of a large, new living creature, previously unimagined,” writes William deBuys in his lyrical new book, “The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures.” (Read excerpt.)

It was an animal unlike any other on Earth — not just a new species but a new genus, a mammal with no known close relatives. The saola has strange scent glands on its white-flecked muzzle and a preternaturally calm disposition. Viewed from the side, its two horns appear as one.

“Like that other one-horned beast,” Dr. deBuys writes, “it stands close to being the apotheosis of the ineffable, the embodiment of magic in nature. Unlike the unicorn, however, the saola is corporeal. It lives, and it can die.”

Indeed, the saola is under grave threat; its small sliver of habitat, in the Annamite Mountains along the border between Laos and Vietnam, is being steadily dismantled. Traders smuggle rosewood out of the forest, and poachers hunt an array of rare animals that are highly coveted by chefs and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.

Saola are not the most valuable quarry, but wire snares do not discriminate. “The occasional saola is a bystander, felled in the general mayhem,” Dr. deBuys writes.

But saving the saola, Dr. deBuys makes clear, will be no easy task. No Westerner has ever seen one in the wild, and scientists don’t know how many of the elusive animals still roam the forest, or whether the recently discovered species is already extinct.

As Dr. deBuys writes, “the challenges of saola conservation verge on epistemology: How do you save a ghost when you are not sure it exists?”

“The Last Unicorn” is an adventure tale and a meditation, an evocative read that makes clear why wild places matter and how difficult it will be to save them.

Dr. deBuys, a nature writer and conservationist, first heard about the saola in 2009, when an audience member at a talk he delivered suggested that he write about the creature. Two years later he was in Laos, accompanying the field biologist Bill Robichaud on a three-week trek through the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area, searching for signs of the animal.

Dr. deBuys chronicles the expedition in all its punishing detail. The terrain is unforgiving, and he and his companions are forced to navigate thick forest, slick streambeds and steep mountains. They battle fatigue, dehydration and illness.

And they run smack into evidence of just how thoroughly the forest is being plundered, stumbling across poachers’ camps, collecting hundreds of snares, and discovering the carcasses of endangered animals that simply put their feet in the wrong place. Dr. Robichaud attempts to wrangle uncooperative guides and win over wary villagers, all while scouring the forest for signs of a rare and mysterious animal that may or may not be extinct.

It can seem at times like a fool’s errand, but there are, Dr. deBuys points out, all sorts of reasons to protect the Nakai-Nam Theun and Earth’s other wild places. They may harbor rare species that provide new insights into biology or hold secrets to the next blockbuster drugs. And these areas perform vital ecological services, such as sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or naturally purifying water.

What keeps the conservationists going, however, aren’t these eminently practical considerations. It’s beauty.

“We are entranced by beautiful creatures not just because they give pleasure and inspire awe but because they carry a charge like an ionized particle,” Dr. deBuys writes.

“Put a saola, even a saola you cannot see, in a forest, and the forest, as though it held a unicorn, acquires an energy that cannot be described. It becomes numinous; it gains the pull of gravity, the weight of water, the float of a feather.”

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