Deep in the jungle highlands along the Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia border, there lies what one Oxford zoologist describes as a "lost world," full of exotic animals never seen before by Western science. New species of large mammals - including a half-goat/half-ox, a deer that barks, and a relation of the nearly extinct Javan rhino - seem to pop up every month. There's also tantalizing, persistent reports by local villagers of a fur-covered animal that they call 'Nguoi Ruhe,' or "Forest Man," who walks upright on two legs.
How these animals got here; how they remained undiscovered; and how they survived the war are still mysterious. Whether they will survive the peace is still being decided.
Meanwhile, wildlife biologists are ecstatic: In an era when scientists are pleased to find a new type of slug, discovering a new large mammal is astonishing. (Over two centuries ago, a famous biologist by the name of Georges Cuvier was already lamenting that all the big creatures had already been found.)
If you're a young wildlife biologist and want to make a name for yourself, you high-tail it to this part of Southeast Asia.
But this opportunity comes at great risk. Where scientists elsewhere worry about getting tenure, researchers here must dodge leftover landmines and "butterfly bombs" to do their field research. It is literally a case of "publish or perish." One researcher was shot and nearly killed by stray Khmer Rouge guerrillas while he was looking for a live Vietnamese forest ox. Drug runners, smugglers, and warlords abound; in the late 1990s, the world's only captive specimen of a type of barking deer lived in the private menagerie of a local jungle warlord, his prize guarded by mercenaries armed with Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifles.
One old expatriate simply described this region as "a very bad area full of very bad people."
But the pull of the new wildlife is too enticing.
And academics are not the only ones rushing in. The jungle-disease-resistant genes of a single forest ox could be worth billions of dollars to the world's domestic cattle industry, says a National Academy of Sciences' expert on biological engineering.
The result is what some call a "biological goldrush" . . .
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This book idea has its origins in the time I spent trekking through Vietnam's jungles. See my stories in the "Magazines" and "Newspapers" sections of this website.