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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”