The Last Unicorn

A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures, William deBuys, Little, Brown & Company.

In the late ’80s song “If a Tree Falls,” Canadian folk/rock musician Bruce Cockburn offered a dire assessment of the damage being inflicted on the natural world. Unlike the extinction events of the distant past, however, today’s drama is a human-fueled production, one which Cockburn described as a “busy monster eat[ing] dark holes in the spirit world, where wild things have to go ... to disappear ... forever.”

A quarter-century later that monster is still busy; its appetite apparently insatiable. This becomes abundantly clear to nature writer William deBuys after spending two weeks in remote parts of Laos and Vietnam with esteemed field biologist Bill Robichaud—this particular 2011 expedition part of Robichaud’s ongoing commitment to research and conservation efforts in Southeast Asia, but more notably, a valiant attempt to catch sight of one of the rarest animals on earth, the saola, whose discovery in 1992 is regarded as perhaps the most astounding zoological find of the century.

A cousin of cattle and resembling the antelope, the enigmatic saola is, as deBuys notes, “known mainly for being unknown.” Though the saola’s parallel horns protrude from the back of its head, those horns create the illusion of a lone shiv when viewed in profile, hence the comparison to the mythical unicorn. The saola’s gentle, Zen-like behavior—observed in the few that have been held (however briefly) in captivity—also mirrors the demeanor attributed to the fabled creature.

To search for the saola is to journey into the broadleaf evergreen forests of the Annamite Mountains that divide Laos and Vietnam, a world into which relatively few Westerners have set foot. To reach the forests requires a long journey by boat and motorbike, not to mention one’s own two feet. As deBuys recounts in a note from the trail, “This is part of what makes the saola so elusive … so difficult even to reach the place where you start looking for it.”

In a succession of remote Laotian villages en route to the forest, Robichaud procures guides, gathers intel, and meets with the village councils, chiefs, and headmen with whom he has developed longstanding friendships. These meetings reveal the tug of war between those trying to preserve the environment and the reality on the ground for those who live in these far-flung regions. Robichaud diplomatically plants the seeds to preserve the wild; the village chiefs lobby for roads and tractors to tame it.

In the forest, the hunt truly begins and the challenge of finding such an extraordinary creature in the vast and untamed terrain becomes apparent. The best evidence of rare and endangered animals is the numerous camps left by poachers as well as the carnage wrought by the poachers’ snare lines. It is here that the enormous challenge of preserving the natural treasures of the world is underscored.

The greatest threat is from market hunters from Vietnam, who slip into the protected forests that are in areas too large to effectively protect, especially when the financial reward of poaching is so great and the funding available for protection so little. Exotic animals end up as wild meat in status restaurants or as animal-based medicinal treatments. Rosewood is cleared to become furniture and guitars.

So it should be no surprise that this richly told story is poignant—a glimpse into a primal world stressed by the unremitting demands of modernity. At journey’s end, deBuys highlights the arguments of conservationists, who implore that the habitat of the saola be preserved—for biodiversity, to moderate the climate, or even simply for its beauty. The author notes, too, that there are those who reject these entreaties, believing that we have been placed in a position of dominion over the saola and all of creation.

DeBuys offers no simple answer. There isn’t one.

But what is inarguable is that the natural habitat of the saola is vanishing at an accelerating rate and that time is running out for all of us to ask how we ought to be treating the beauty of this world. In “The Last Unicorn,” deBuys compels the reader to do just that.