In February 2011, Pulitzer-Prize finalist William deBuys found himself immersed in a dew-dripping, leech-infested jungle in the watershed of the Nam Nyang river. The region—buried deep within the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area in central Laos—had never before been seen by Western eyes. DeBuys, along with biologist William Robichaud, two Lao university students, and a small crew of porters, was hoping to find an animal as “rare as the rarest thing on Earth:” the saola.
“Like that other one-horned beast, it stands close to being the apotheosis of the ineffable, the embodiment of magic in nature,” writes deBuys in his new book, The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures. “Unlike the unicorn, however, the saola is corporeal. It lives, and it can die.”
Villagers had known about the saola (pronounced “sow-la”), a grazing bovine with cloven hooves, for centuries. It wasn’t until 1992, however, that a team of scientists surveying Vietnam’s Vu Quang Nature Reserve chanced upon a set of mysterious horns hanging from a mountain shack. As one of the biologists observed, they weren’t tined like the antlers of a muntjac, or curved like the short spikes on a serow. Instead, the horns grew long and straight, tapering to a sharp point. DNA analysis later confirmed the team had identified not just a new species, but the single member of an entirely new genus, and the first large land mammal discovered in 50 years. When Robichaud and deBuys embarked on their journey, no Westerner had ever witnessed a saola in the wild.
In The Last Unicorn, deBuys often disappears from the page entirely, allowing the story to move beyond his own motives and expectations and into the history and culture of the territory he’s exploring. Cautious never to stray too far from the adventure, deBuys narrates the struggle to protect the last vestiges of wilderness in Southeast Asia by layering it effortlessly into Robichaud’s heady mission.
“Once the war on nature reaches a level at which nothing is safe, it doesn’t matter if the intensity increases,” deBuys writes. “Until the transborder wildlife trade is suppressed, no one can argue that the saola of Nakai-Nam Theun, or its other wildlife, have been protected.”
deBuys takes sharp-eyed note of bipedals, too, of the conniving porter who weaseled his way into the crew, of the drinking rituals in the Laos villages, and of Robichaud himself, rugged and handsome, always in a hurry, but never too busy to identify the call of a Laughingthrush or other forest birds. His dynamic descriptions bring the experience to life one day, one village, one water break at a time.
When deBuys does insert himself into the narrative, he does so to stunning effect, reflecting on the voyage as if from a great distance, chronicling the sights and sounds of the Nakai-Nam Theun with language both lyrical and precise. “We are earthbound, small creatures in a forest of soaring giants, and I want to stop and linger here, to explore the feel of shade and space, to attend the silence that pools among these immense wooden columns, but there is no pausing,” he writes. “We have a destination to reach, still far away. We have an animal to find.”
Do they find it? The notion of true discovery is enticing, especially in today’s Google-mapped world. It’s hard to fathom that a mammal “as big as a carousel pony” went undiscovered until 1992, and it’s fortunate that a first-hand account of such a unique voyage exists. That it’s written by a storyteller as commanding and reflective as William deBuys, well, that’s just plain lucky.
The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures, by William deBuys, Little, Brown and Company, 368 pages, $20.28. Buy it at Barnes&Noble.