A carp fisherman on a reservoir at the edge of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam, where one of the last wild Edwards's Pheasants was collected. Photo: Justin Mott

Dispatch

In Search of the Stunning—and Possibly Extinct—Edwards's Pheasant

No one has seen the elusive bird in the wild in nearly two decades, but it might still inhabit Vietnam's war-ravaged mountain valleys.

The Village of Thua Luu, in the central Vietnamese province of Thua Thien-Hue, is tucked into the narrow coastal strip between the Annamite Mountains and the South China Sea. Just behind the railroad tracks is an imposing French Catholic church with a wrought-iron gate bearing the date of its consecration: 1894.

The missionaries who came to what was then French Indochina were often men of science as well as seekers of souls, and a year after the church was built, Father Jean-Nicolas Renauld found in the hills north of Thua Luu four specimens of a bird no European had seen before. It was a pheasant of striking beauty. The male’s plumage was a shimmering, iridescent blue. It had a shaggy white crest, and its face was bright red, its legs a lighter vermilion. The female was more subdued, though when she caught the light there were subtle shades of chestnut brown and a metallic green sheen to the edge of her wings.

Renauld sent the four skins to the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, where the bird was given its Linnaean name: Gennaeus Edwardsi (later reclassified as Lophura edwardsi), in honor of the museum’s director, Alphonse Milne-Edwards. And that was the last anyone outside of Vietnam saw of the species until the aristocratic French explorer and ornithologist Jean Delacour arrived in Indochina a quarter-century later.

The imposing French Catholic church in the village of Thua Luu in central Vietnam. Photo: Justin Mott

The French in Vietnam were brutal and rapacious, yet also deeply committed to science and scholarship, seeing it as an essential part of their Mission Civilisatrice. In 1922 the governor of what was then the Protectorate of Annam invited Delacour to make the first comprehensive survey of the birds of French Indochina. A man of formidable energy, Delacour would end up making seven expeditions to the remotest parts of present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, capping his discoveries with the monumental four-volume Les Oiseaux de l’Indochine Française, published in 1931.

In the city of Quang Tri, Delacour met Pierre Jabouille, a colonial administrator with a passion for zoology. Jabouille gave Delacour a tour of his small aviary, which included three living Lophura edwardsi. Since childhood, pheasants had been Delacour’s special passion, and he was entranced, he wrote, by the bird’s “glittering blue” beauty.

Jabouille joined Delacour on his expeditions, and together they amassed a collection of 38,000 specimens, mammals as well as birds, including 140 previously undocumented species. In the forests of Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Tri, they collected 64 live Edwards’s Pheasants, suggesting that the bird was not uncommon at the time. Its southernmost stronghold seemed to be the Col des Nuages—today’s Hai Van Pass—and the foothills of the nearby Bach Ma range, which rears up from the coastal plain behind Thua Luu to a height of 4,750 feet. It was a shy, secretive creature, Delacour wrote, rarely emerging from its favored habitat of “wet, mountainous slopes covered with underbrush and creepers.”

A male Edwards’s Pheasant in the Hanoi Zoo, the direct descendant of a bird captured in the wild and now part of the breeding program to reintroduce the species in the wild. Photo: Justin Mott

After his final expedition in 1929, the trail went cold again until a brief flurry of sightings decades later. There have been no sightings since the year 2000. In 2012 the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed the Edwards’s Pheasant on its list of the 100 most endangered species. Could the gorgeous bird be extinct? For Vietnamese ornithologists, the question has become a near-obsession. Have they  looked in the right places? Why would it disappear while its near-relatives survived? And if it really had disappeared, could they establish a new wild population with captive-bred birds? In May, looking for answers to these questions, I made a 300-mile journey through the bird’s historic habitat, retracing Delacour’s travels.

From the sweltering coastal plain, the narrow road snaked its way up the mountain to Bach Ma, which is now a national park. The temperature dropped steadily. The peaks were wreathed in clouds, and there were spatters of rain. The pages of my notebook began to curl with the humidity. By the time we reached the modest guesthouse near the summit, it was cool enough for a light sweater.

The next two days brought spells of drizzle, blankets of snow-white mist, interludes of blazing sunshine, and drenching downpours. The higher altitudes of Bach Ma get more than 300 inches of rain a year.

The French had always seen Bach Ma as a special place, unusually rich in wildlife and scenic beauty. Its rainforests were especially renowned for their avian life, and above all for their large-bodied ground birds. Seven of Vietnam’s 12 pheasant species are found here.

Map: Mike Regan

My traveling companion, Le Quy Minh, worked in the park for 11 years before becoming chief guide for Vietnam Birding, an outfit based in Ho Chi Minh City. Minh has no fondness for city life and still lives in his ancestral village, Truoi; it sits at the edge of Bach Ma’s “buffer zone,” where hunting and logging are illegal, and the government is sponsoring reforestation projects. Minh is a small, sturdily built man in his late 40s, with iron-gray hair clipped en brosse and a quick, dry wit, with a habit of breaking into a sudden sly grin at anything that amuses him. When the sun came out, he gave me a baseball cap that matched his own. It was embroidered with the image of a bird with a black-and-white streaked body, a light-brown back, and a long, silvery tail—the Grey-crowned Crocias. It was only much later that I realized its significance.

I asked how many species he’d seen in his birding career. More than 550, he guessed, but quality mattered more to him than quantity. He liked nothing more than spending half an hour watching a Dark-necked Tailorbird or a handsome Long-tailed Broadbill or searching out the “dancing ground” the Crested Argus uses for its courtship displays.

“I saw this only once,” he said. “The Crested Argus is the star of Bach Ma. The Edwards’s Pheasant is its hidden star.”

For a novice—and frankly I was the rankest of novices—spending time with someone like Minh is an education, a privilege, and a lesson in humility. As we hiked through the forest, he identified one bird after another by its song.

Tchik wu-wit.

“Ashy Drongo.”

Tsip-it-sip-it-sit.

“Crimson Sunbird.”

Tewirr, a sound like derisive laughter.

“Red-headed Trogon. If the Co Tu, the ethnic minority people, hear that call in the forest they hurry straight home, because they think the bird is mocking them.”

“Stop!” he would say. “Look!” And he would point at a dense, unbroken wall of green.

I stopped and looked. I saw a dense, unbroken wall of green.

“Where that branch is moving.”

Branches were moving everywhere, stirred by a gentle breeze.

“Here, take the binoculars.”

I took them. I saw a dense, unbroken wall of green in close-up. He smiled patiently. “Orange-bellied Leafbird, a female. And look, she has a berry in her beak. Orange belly, orange berry.” He shot me one of his trademark grins. Finally I caught a quick blur of brown as the bird flew off.

Sometimes Minh drew the birds toward us by imitating their calls: Green-eared Barbet, Blue-winged Leafbird, Blue-throated Flycatcher, Blue Whistling-Thrush, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush. Crested Serpent-Eagles and Black Eagles glided overhead.

We followed trails that switchbacked up and down the mountainside through dark evergreen stands, the patches of dappled sunlight alive with butterflies, canary-yellow, orange-and-white, electric-blue, translucent wings patterned with brown veins like airborne X-rays. Cicadas formed a raucous orchestra of chainsaws, power drills, and car horns. On the steeper slopes rotting steps cut long ago by French visitors led to small, gin-clear rivers that tumbled over rocks and waterfalls. One uphill stretch was especially arduous, and my knees and lungs counted off each one of the 296 steps.

A Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler, a relatively rare and elusive bird. Photo: Justin Mott

Under Minh’s tutelage, I began to do better. I saw a Mountain Fulvetta, a Slaty-backed Forktail, a gloriously lemon-yellow Sultan Tit, a Grey-chinned Minivet (bright orange-red, despite its name), and finally a gregarious flock of Indochinese Yuhinas, feeding in the branches right above our heads.

By the second afternoon I’d checked off 60 species. Our best sighting, Minh said, had been the Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler, a smallish brown-and-white bird with a long, curved beak, unremarkable in appearance but so elusive that it could drive experienced birders to distraction. “Groups come all the way from Japan just to see this bird and then they still don’t see it,” he said. “You were very lucky.”

Needless to say, we never saw an Edwards’s Pheasant. If we had, you would have heard the sound of ornithologists popping champagne corks halfway around the world.

We left the trail and plunged into the sodden rainforest, hacking our way through the undergrowth, scraping leeches off our boots and keeping an eye out for cobras, green pit vipers, and kraits. We soon came upon the ruins of a two-story building, green with moss, engulfed in vines. “This was Monsieur Bony’s hotel,” Minh said.

By 1931, when Delacour published his masterwork, the contradictions of French rule were coming to a head. In Vietnam, France was facing its first serious Communist revolt, which it put down with brutal efficiency: 1930 and 1931 were known respectively as the years of the Red Terror and the White Terror.

Hue’s French residents were anxious to escape not only from the summer heat but also from the restive Vietnamese. Like the British in India, they looked to the mountains, and in 1932 French engineers decided that Bach Ma, 40 miles from Hue, was an ideal spot for a hill station. Over the next decade it grew into a robust settlement of about 140 structures, including a military camp. Then came the war that eventually expelled the French from Indochina. Bach Ma was abandoned.

A little way uphill, a second set of ruins revealed another layer of history. The crumbling remnants of a flight of steps led to what had once been the Chapel of the Sisters of Joan of Arc. Its walls were riddled with bullet holes, and the hillside was pockmarked with old trenches and bomb craters and tunnels dug by North Vietnamese sappers.

In wartime Bach Ma had enormous strategic value. On a clear day, it commanded a 360-degree view that took in the Laotian border; the main North-South highway and railway line; and the Danang airbase, the take-off point for the U.S. Military’s defoliation campaign known as Operation Ranch Hand, which introduced the words Agent Orange and ecocide into our vocabulary. The lower slopes of the Annamite Mountains were a primary target, since they formed the backbone of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where the Viet Cong took invisible advantage of the forest cover to transport war matériel. A sad corollary, of course, was that Agent Orange also laid waste to much of the Edwards’s Pheasant’s historic habitat.

W

e drove north from Bach Ma, through the A Luoi Valley, which was so heavily sprayed that scientists later chose it as the site for the first in-depth study of the long-term impact of Agent Orange on the environment and human health. A Luoi is a bustling little town these days, hung with red-and-yellow banners that said, “This Commune Warmly Welcomes Delegates to the Festival of Culture and Sports of the Ethnic Minorities of the Province.”

Fifty years after Operation Ranch Hand, there were still poisoned hillsides where only coarse grasses and a few banana trees grew. But the landscape had been disfigured in other ways, too. What were once thickets of bamboo and rattan, the kind of terrain favored by Lophura edwardsi, had been supplanted by the spindly monotony of acacia plantations, which Minh described as “a dead zone for birds; no food, few insects, nowhere to hide.” You could measure the loss of habitat in the number of local wood-chip factories, in the volume of fiberboard for cheap furniture.

Entering Quang Tri province, we passed two small nature reserves, Dakrong and Bac Hoang Hoa, where researchers have been setting camera traps for the past few years in a vain effort to find a live Edwards's Pheasant. You couldn’t escape the war here either; we had reached the edge of the former Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam. At the old Marine base at Khe Sanh, a man was burning stubble to plant coffee bushes, and smoke drifted across the former airstrip in a strange ghost-memory of battle. A beautiful blue-black-and-white bird flew over the wreckage of a downed American helicopter, preserved for posterity. Minh looked up and said, “Oriental Magpie-Robin.” 

Naval shells fired from American ships offshore during the 1968 siege of the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh, on the edge of the demilitarized zone. Photo: Justin Mott

W

e peeled off Highway 9 to find a nondescript village called Kreng, which had played a small but vital part in the story of Lophura edwardsi. I’d gone looking for this obscure place because of a document I’d been sent by the ornithologist Le Trong Trai, the director of Viet Nature, an offshoot of BirdLife International: a timeline of every known Edwards’s Pheasant sighting since 1895. The male found in Kreng was one of the most significant. Captured in 1996, it had been sent to the Hanoi Zoo in hopes that it might breed with captive birds there.

I met Trai, who is also head of the Edwards’s Pheasant Working Group, a consortium of scientists and government officials, in the capital of Quang Binh province, Dong Hoi. He was a jolly, upbeat character, like so many scientists engaged in possibly hopeless endeavors.

After Delacour, Trai told me over dinner, there had been no hint of the bird until the 1960s, and the handful that showed up then were, at best, Edwards’s with an asterisk. “They had white tail feathers,” Trai said. “We thought it was a new species.” It turned out, however, that the white feathers were a genetic mutation, a sure sign of a shrinking population, confined to small and fragmented remnants of habitat.

By the late 1980s the decline of biodiversity in Southeast Asia began to keep conservationists awake at night. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia had been torn apart by war, and wildlife biology hadn’t exactly been a priority. Now that began to change. In 1991 Vietnam established its first national parks and nature reserves. The next challenge was to find out what lived there.

Le Trong Trai is head of the Edwards's Pheasant Working Group, which is reintroducing captive-bred birds into the wild. Photo: Justin Mott

As researchers fanned out into those remnant areas, there was a fresh surge of optimism. In the wet evergreen forests of Quang Binh they stumbled upon two previously unknown mammals—the large-antlered muntjac, a new species of deer; and the saola, sometimes called the Asian unicorn because its twin pointed horns, seen in profile, appear to be one. If you could find a new mammal, why not an old bird? And then, in 1996, they did. The shimmering blue pheasant turned up again. The first two were found close to Bach Ma, the third in the village of Kreng.

The search intensified. “Posters showing the Edwards’s Pheasant were distributed in the villages,” Trai said. “So when local hunters snared the birds, they would say, ‘Maybe that’s the one they’re looking for! Maybe we can make a little money, more than we’d get for a chicken!’ “

Over the next four years, 20 birds were collected in Quang Tri, five in Thua Thien-Hue, and one in Quang Binh, almost all brought in by hunters, some alive and some dead. One of them, a male, survived for a few weeks in a cage at Bach Ma, just long enough for Minh to get his first look at a wild Edwards’s Pheasant. “It was such a good feeling,” he said. “It was so different, so curious. And that was when my real fascination began.”

But yet again, the search was like a train that seemed to pick up momentum only to screech to a sudden halt. In 2000, rattan collectors in Quang Tri found two males, a female, and four eggs. And that was the last time anyone saw Lophura edwardsi in the wild.

That didn’t mean the effort was over, Trai said. The camera traps would remain. But the problem had been turned on its head. If the bird no longer survived in the wild, why not put it back? Scattered in zoos and private collections around the world, there were a good number of captive birds, and geneticists could select the purest bloodlines. Meanwhile, the working group had identified the pocket of habitat where these returnees were most likely to thrive: a 77-square-mile block of dense, low-altitude tropical rainforest called Khe Nuoc Trong, in the remote southwest corner of Quang Binh. The provincial government granted Viet Nature a 30-year lease on a portion of this protected area, with another 12 acres set aside for an aviary and breeding center. Construction is slated to begin in early 2018.

It was time to put the rewilding theories into practice. “This is the moment of truth,” Trai said. “We call it the Edwards's Pheasant homecoming.”

P

eople had told me that the western section of the Ho Chi Minh Highway was the most beautiful road in Vietnam, and as it wound its way through steep, forested mountains with sweeping views across the border into Laos, I saw no reason to argue. The hillsides here weren’t scarred by the bald patches we’d seen earlier; the DMZ had been the northern limit of Operation Ranch Hand, and we’d crossed that now. There were periodic military checkpoints, but other than the odd motorbike and some boys herding water buffalo, the road was empty.

We descended into the densely forested valley of Khe Nuoc Trong, crossed a muddy river, and saw a wisp of smoke rising from a tin-roofed building. Outside, a Vietnamese flag hung limply in the morning heat. The chief ranger, a 35-year-old named Tran Viet Trung, was sitting at a battered table with an outsize aluminum kettle and two packs of White Horse cigarettes. He fetched some glasses and poured us tea.

Chief ranger Tran Viet Trung in the valley of Khe Nuoc Trong. Photo: Justin Mott

Illegal hunting is the main threat to wildlife, he said, and his enforcement powers are limited. Logging had been halted here in 1992 (at least on paper), and the forest had grown back, but it hadn’t yet been elevated to the status of a nature reserve. The governor of Quang Binh was sympathetic, however, and Trung was hopeful that he’d approve the upgrade soon.

The Ho Chi Minh Highway and the spur roads into Laos had made things worse, Minh said. He’d been here in 2005, when the highway opened, and could see right away that it worked like a pizza cutter, slicing up the forest into smaller fragments, with grievous consequences for endemic species that were already under pressure. Worse, it gave hunters easier access to the forest and to urban markets for their catch.

Some hunters were poor villagers looking to toss something new into the family cookpot, but the bigger problem was the illicit wildlife trade. In one of the cruel ironies of conservationism, the discovery of rare creatures like the saola was like a flashing neon sign for anyone looking to kill them. Asia, and especially China, was awash with new money, and anything that was thought to have medicinal or aphrodisiac properties or could be nailed to your wall as a status symbol—basically anything with horns, scales, or a penis—was fair game. Exotic bushmeat was in high demand, and the flayed corpses of the red-shanked douc, a rare and beautiful primate, could be found strung up outside restaurants in the nearest towns. Snares set for mammals could just as easily trap large-bodied ground birds like pheasants, like bycatch in a fishing net.

Trai said that I shouldn’t be deceived by the primeval appearance of Khe Nuoc Trong. “The trees are still there, but there’s no wildlife left except for a few common birds.”

Trai had no illusions that the rewilding effort would be easy. It would take three generations, five to seven years, for captive birds to learn where to nest, how to raise their chicks, how to protect them from predators. To help them do so, Trai and his colleagues would select birds to maximize genetic diversity, build specially designed aviaries, and identify the best location for temporary sheltered enclosures where the birds could find natural food and water before they’re finally released on their own. The World Pheasant Association, which had initiated the effort, could also draw upon expert advice from European zoos and the IUCN itself. Detailed protocols for returning pheasants to the wild, developed by the World Pheasant Association and the IUCN, have been used to restore tragopans in Pakistan, India, and China, and in efforts to restore the Green Peafowl in Malaysia. “So yes,” Trai said, “I think it will work.”

Above all, though, you had to be sure to identify the right birds for the experiment, and that brought the story back full circle to Delacour.

I

t was a blazingly hot morning when I arrived at the Hanoi Zoo. There weren’t many visitors, just a few kids whizzing about on bumper cars and carousels and one or two families with picnic bags and selfie sticks.

The zoo’s president, Dang Gia Tung, had just reached the mandatory retirement age of 60, though he looked much younger, almost boyish. Like Delacour, his passion was pheasants. The zoo’s efforts to breed Lophura edwardsi in captivity and return it to the wild had been a 20-year saga, he said, full of setbacks. If it ultimately succeeded, it would be largely thanks to Delacour, because what set the Frenchman apart from other great ornithologists had been his passion for collecting live birds—and breeding them. “As a child,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I was intrigued by the story of the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise . . . I have always dreamt of reconstructing it.”

When Delacour was 10, his father built him his first aviary. At 17, he designed a special enclosure for beautiful pheasants like the Himalayan Monal and the tragopan. At 23 he expanded it into an extraordinary aviary complex, where, he wrote, “the visitor found himself in a sort of miniature dream world.”

But like the forests of Vietnam, his dream world was reshaped by war. In 1918 the family estate was reduced to rubble by shellfire. Every bird was killed. After the war, Delacour found a new home in the rolling hills of Normandy, the Gothic Château de Clères, where he assembled the world’s largest-ever collection of pheasants. Among them were 28 of the 64 Lophura edwardsi he’d found in Annam. Some of their offspring made their way to other private breeders, eventually growing to a population of more than 1,000 captive birds with impossibly tangled bloodlines. Then war intervened again. The chateau was bombed twice in 1940, and Delacour fled to the United States for the duration of the war. He eventually restored Clères to its former glory, and it remains there today.

Parc zoologique de Clères in Normandy, France, is where Delacour once fostered his collection of live pheasants. Photo: Isamiga76/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

The Hanoi Zoo got four female and four male captive birds from Europe in 1994. Three years later the male from Kreng arrived, and the zoo made the first-ever attempt at breeding a wild Edwards’s Pheasant with a captive. “By the time the Kreng bird died in 2015, we had preserved the valuable genes of a wild male,” Tung said, “so we brought over four birds from the Prague Zoo, one male and three females, to strengthen and diversify the gene pool.”

He smiled. “Would you like to see them?”

In the aviary a Prague female was nervous and skittered away into a corner. A male descendant of the Kreng bird, 8 or 10 generations on, was unfazed. He ambled over to me, claws clacking faintly on the tiled floor. Three feet away, two. His face somewhere on the spectrum between cardinal red and crimson. Gleams of sunlight on the electric blue of his breast. Black beady eyes, infinitely curious, that studied me as if I were the creature in a zoo and he were the visitor. I was unprepared for the moment, suddenly understanding an obsession that went back more than 100 years.

But there was more. Tung unlatched another cage. Half a dozen balls of brown fluff, still too young to be sexed. They had been born in March, on the eve of his retirement. They were, he agreed, the best going-away present a man could hope for. 

D

espite the emphasis on rewilding, no one was willing to abandon the idea that the Edwards’s Pheasant might still be clinging on, somewhere deep in the rainforest. “I think it still exists, because some of its habitat still exists,” Minh said over dinner in Dong Hoi, and Trai agreed. So did Nguyen Cu, one of Vietnam’s most renowned ornithologists, whom I met later in Hanoi. As a young fighter, Cu had spent four years on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and knew the Annamite Mountains intimately. Pheasants are famously resilient creatures, he said, tolerant of major habitat disruptions. “All these other pheasants survived,” he said. “So why not the Edwards’s Pheasant? It was a big mystery, and it still is. But I still believe it is out there, somewhere.”

While everyone agreed, the unspoken subtext always hovered at the blurred line between I think so and I hope so. Yet their hopes were not entirely irrational. Birds thought to be extinct can suddenly reappear, as Cu knew better than anyone. In 1994 he was on an expedition in Dak Lak province in the Central Highlands with Trai and the British ornithologist Jonathan Eames. “I looked up and suddenly saw it,” he told me. “ ‘Look!’ I said. ‘A Grey-crowned Crocias!’ It was a wonderful moment!” The bird had not been recorded since its original discovery, back in 1939. He pointed at my baseball cap. It was the bird embroidered there.

A few months later, in the mountains of Phong Nha, in Quang Binh province, Cu managed to capture a live specimen of the long-lost Sooty Babbler, which had not been seen since it was first collected in Laos in 1920.

The Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, had been the last stop on my journey with Minh. It’s an otherworldly landscape of vertical outcroppings of limestone karst, interspersed with rice paddies that are still dotted with small, circular ponds, craters left by B-52 bombing raids, a place where subterranean rivers flow through one of the largest and most spectacular cave systems in the world.

Deep inside the park, we stopped to walk along a turquoise river that ran between sheer, forested slopes. Assamese macaques crashed around in the trees. An endangered Hatinh langur stood erect on a branch high above us, leaning forward on both hands and looking for all the world like an old man enjoying the scenery. Minh walked ahead of me, ears cocked as always for birdsong.

A soft call came from the trees along the riverbank. Tip, tu-tip. Tip, tu-tip.

“What was that one?” I asked.

“Sooty Babbler,” he answered, and shot me one of his grins. It can happen.

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