Of course there are animal species we don’t know about yet, but surely they are all small ones: bugs, lizards, perhaps small mammals in particularly remote locations, right? Certainly we must know about all of the large mammal species, especially the land-dwelling mammals. After all, humans have spread throughout the world. Well, it is possible that every large mammal in the world is known by some human, but it is also incredibly likely that there are still large mammal species, particularly those with small ranges, that are unknown to Western science.
Such was the case with the saola until 1992. A bovid like sheep, cattle, and antelopes, the saola has a small range in the mountains of Laos and Vietnam and no known close living relatives. It is likely the only remaining animal from a very ancient branch of the bovid family tree. Fortunately, much of the saola’s range in Laos is protected area. Unfortunately, the protected area is protected mostly in name only and much of the area’s flora and fauna is leaving Laos through Vietnam to satisfy the larger Asian market.
In The Last Unicorn, author and journalist William DeBuys writes about his experiences trekking through the forest of Laos (or jungles, which DeBuys describes simply as a forest which is not yet familiar to the traveler) with field biologist William Robichaud on a mission to both try to find evidence of saola still surviving in the protected area and promote a culture of preservation among the villagers in the surrounding areas.
DeBuys balances The Last Unicorn perfectly between what they are seeing, the history and science of the wildlife in the area, and his personal thoughts and weaknesses on the trail. This mixture gives the book wide appeal because it can be read as a travelogue, a partial memoir, or a treatise on conservation. In addition, his writing style is endlessly entertaining and is well-suited to both the more scholarly sections and the more personal.
If you are in the mood for smart, insightful nonfiction that can open up new-to-you worlds and make you think twice about the way you live in your own environment, The Last Unicorn by William DeBuys is a must-read.—JEN KARSBAEK