[HCMC]—It’s Saturday morning, and we are preparing to hike into the Vietnam forest toward Crocodile Lake. The lake is a premier attraction of Cát Tiên National Park, where they release rescued Siamese crocodiles back into natural populations. We were driven ten kilometers to the trailhead in the back of a rustic Isuzu truck with two rickety wooden pews. Connected to this jury-rigged seating contraption are bars to hold onto as the truck pitches headlong over inconsistent dirt tracks. Everything creaks and rattles together, leans as one. We were sitting pretty high on the top of the truck bed, so besides the difficulties of keeping my ass on the plank—and absorbing each new pothole with my legs to keep that plank from actually harming me—we also had to duck a lot of overhanging flora. The track goes from one to another type of non-contiguous jungle canopy. Some hang lower than others. The drive was fun but hardly safe. Now we are at the posted trailhead; the sign says Crocodile Lake 5K. Sunshine has taken a seat on a concrete bench to remove her little green tennis shoes. She is putting on a pair of rented leech socks.
We’ve been up for hours already, even though it is still pretty early for me. Our room, catching a good deal of morning sun, was a lot more inviting today than it had been when we checked in last night. The curtains are blue and it gives the concrete cubicle a cool cast that the air conditioner doesn’t quite live up to. We ate breakfast in the cantina down the road from our room. It is being redecorated. Half of the walls are newly painted an earthy burnt-orange color. The other half are crawling with park wildlife. In the back room, a man works on a large green underwater mural featuring crocodiles, turtles, and duckweed. We took the preferred table, right beneath a rotary fan we had to plug in. My egg was pretty damn good, but there weren’t quite enough sub rolls to go around, so I split mine with one of our gracious hosts. Half an egg sandwich is more breakfast than I am used to getting, and I assume it’s enough for a ten kilometer hike. The iced coffee was fabulous.
Cát Tiên Natural Park about a hundred fifty kilometers north northeast of Hồ Chí Minh City. It is home to a pretty vast array of plants and animals, many of the latter endangered. Depending on who you ask, the list of fauna to be found at Cát Tiên is somewhat staggering: Javan rhinoceroses, Asiatic elephants and black bears, crab-eating and pig-tailed macaques, golden-cheeked gibbons, several types of langur, Indian muntjacks, sambar, leopards, palm civets, mouse deer, wild pigs, pangolins, fishing cats, guar, shrews, and wild buffalo. Ask some people and they’ll tell you there are Indochinese Tigers in there. It is a remarkable and diverse area of discontinuous bamboo forest tracts, wetlands, thick double-canopy deciduous woods, and other tropical forest lands. The certain wildlife population seems astoundingly dense to me, considering the confined area of the park is only about seven hundred twenty square kilometers. Some of the more breathless reports can be looked on with skepticism: populations of extremely rare clouded leopards and tigers, and even sun and moon bears, are difficult to verify. That’s not to say that these difficulties should be seen as conclusive. One camera trap set up to spot a possible area sun bear recently photographed a binturong by accident. As of this writing, the park’s official website doesn’t yet list binturong as an inhabitant of the park.
The day before, we’d covered the distance to Cát Tiên Park from Hồ Chí Minh City primarily in a big green city bus with wooden floors. The windows were greasy but open, and while the bus was moving it was actually pretty comfortable. With no air conditioning, the temperature soared immediately every time we’d stop. The trip began with the vehicle at half capacity, a scooter loosely tied in the aisle, blocking off the four back row seats where we were sitting. We’d gotten lucky that our hosts for the weekend, friends who work at the park, were already in town this weekend. They’d been able to return to Cát Tiên with us. It is confusing trip. There are different destinations called Cát Tiên, and multiple ways to reach them. Since we had guides, we were spared much of the confusion and uncertainty here. We’ve never had the opportunity to become habituated to this type of public transportation in Vietnam.
And that’s a shame. It was much nicer seeing the landscape gradually trundle along past those open windows than to watch the globe shift anonymously beneath airplane portholes. We traveled through many different villages Friday, but they all muddled together to constitute one nearly consistent urban outskirt along the way. We stopped regularly, both to pick up passengers and to take on freight. Soon the motor-scooter in the aisle was joined by a refrigerator and a couple of dining room chairs. We stopped to load a huge tractor engine into the hold under the wooden floor; then to have a bunch of plastic conduit tied to the roof. Each stop was hot, as I’ve said, but old women in zipped-up hoodies, obscured behind surgical face masks from the cheeks down and leaf hats from the brow up, stepped aboard to sell water and off-brand cola from dripping wicker baskets filled with ice.
Near the end of our trip, already hours after dark, we were transferred to another, smaller bus which whisked us on to the Cát Tiên ferry. That last half hour should have taken longer. We were sped madly through the Vietnamese night, over pitch dark village roadways, dodging pedestrians and bicycle traffic as they appeared in the dim pool of our headlights. This was more like watching someone play a particularly intense video game than being a bus passenger. The benefit was that it was over quickly. Once we staggered from the bus there was only one more step to Cát Tiên: taking a small ferry five hundred feet over the slow-moving local neck of the Đồng Nai River. Our hosts are very friendly with the people at the little convenience snack bar cum ferry station. They were friendly with everybody. The ferry crew were lounging around and chatting after dinner, I guess, but didn’t seem to mind carting us across the river. This is the benefit of being guests. Though it is confusing to get there, tourists are welcome at Cát Tiên. Tourism is one of the ways the park raises money and awareness. But tourists face certain peculiar odds. Our bus from Hồ Chí Minh City took five hours to travel a hundred fifty kilometers. The ferry place has a sign saying it doesn’t run after dark, not without reservations. There was nobody in the tourism kiosk on this side of the river. I was glad, one more time, that we had been lucky enough to make this trip in the company of people who knew what they were doing. People who were friendly with the staff.
After checking-in at the main information desk we wandered along to our room. While the park encourages a certain amount of tourism, this is not a hotel. A tourist hotel is apparently being built somewhere down the road. Our block of rooms are considered guest quarters, though researches stay in these, too. They are predictably Spartan: a cinderblock square bathed in the lurid greenish fluorescence of its one flickering tube. The bed is pushed into the far corner, and has one nailed-on post for attaching the mosquito net. The other three corners of the net hook onto nails driven into the concrete wall. This was inconvenient, since it meant that the bed could not be pushed across the room to the wall with the air conditioner. No matter. I guess it’s better to be just a little bit hot than to have malaria.
I see my first leech about halfway to Crocodile Lake. Leeches in the movies are greenish-black and about the size of a cigar butt, they live in and around brackish water and move sluggishly, relying on prey to all but spoon-feed themselves to the lazy bastards. But not these leeches. What I am shown is olive green, a little longer than an inch worm. It sits on a leaf waving its end around in the air to grab hold of passersby. Its mouth is its widest point, about the circumference of a pencil eraser. And it’s fast.
We were appraised of the availability of leech socks before we even left Hồ Chí Minh City. I’d had trouble understanding what they were for. It seemed to me that heavy pants and boots were good enough for those movie leeches. Could Vietnamese leeches bite through denim? To be safe, I have worn my combat boots, the old thick leather kind that lace midway up my calf. Sunshine has come hiking in cute brightly-colored trainers that don’t even protect her ankles. That’s okay, because our hosts, old hands at hiking here, are wearing little shoes, too. One is hiking in sandals. I am beginning to feel like my feet are overdressed, maybe. I do not think I need any leech socks. In any event, it’s difficult to take my shoes off and put them on again now that we are on the hike. Everyone else is wearing the socks, of course. They are tall sleeves of nylon that are worn under the shoes but over the pants legs. They protect up to the knees. They are not water-tight or particularly puncture resistant. I get assurances that we aren’t planning on investigating brackish areas, anyway. It has been at least a week since the last rain, and I can’t imagine where any leeches would be.
It’s pretty dry in the forest. It’s more humid here than in the compound area, possibly due to the low light and rotting vegetable matter; but it’s still dry. And beautiful: we are in an area of high foliage, and the woods are open around and above us. It’s all deeply green and brown, the spongy floor of the forest studded with volcanic stones covered in moss. The area around us is very quiet. We are looking out for animals as we go. There is virtually no chance we will see any. I am conscious of how very loudly I am moving through the jungle. I’m also pretty slow. I’d injured my ankle a couple of weeks before and, while it isn’t hurting me, I’m taking no chances on spraining it again on the path’s uneven stones and slick leaves. My loudness and slowness combine to protect park wildlife: anything living in the area will be well-hidden, or long gone, before I’ve gotten there. We do see a number of butterflies, however. They don’t seem to care how loud I am.
The path we are hiking is well-tended, and there is very little to duck under or push out of our way. Occasionally, we walk past deer and civet scat, the latter full of seeds and pods. Here and there are piles of figs fallen from tropical trees with buttress roots that form snaky, muscular walls through the porous igneous rock of the jungle floor. One particular Tetrameles nudiflora has a root system taller than me in places, and we sit here for a minute or two enjoying what scattered sunshine is allowed into the forest along its immense trunk. It’s here that I’m eagerly shown, by each of our hosts in turn, a leech. The first will not bite down on our host’s hand because of bug repellant, so he shows it to me up close. It whips around, stretching to find something to bite. I am a little bit impressed with leeches. The second I’m shown waves around in the middle of our trail, where it is nearly invisible in the in the fallen leaves carpeting everything.
Shortly before the five kilometer mark, we come across a weathered and possibly faltering structure that has been referred to as a boardwalk. It’s really a bridge. It runs about a hundred yards, maybe a little longer, across a low area I take to be a continuation of Crocodile Lake’s flood plain. We are almost there, assuming we live through crossing this bridge. It’s a little harrowing for me. Looking down, I can see right through the flat untreated wood slats into a weedy thicket thirty feet down. Sometimes I can see through gaps, sometimes through holes. Maybe it just seems like thirty feet. Each slat is attached to beams forming a spine down the length of the bridge by exactly one nail. I try to walk along the nails, which is not a straight line. The whole structure sways whenever two of us get a little too close together. I’m pretty certain I’m the heaviest person here, and so I try to keep ahead of the group, too. I am walking a crooked line, quickly. We reach the ranger station at Crocodile Lake none too soon. It is also on stilts, but it seems very solid. Since people live here, we have to take off our shoes to enter.
Blood in My Pants
Later, when I put my boots back on, I also put on my rented leech socks.
Earlier that morning, after breakfast, we’d gone to visit the bear sanctuary. The Vietnam Bear Rescue Program’s first operational forest sanctuary is a result of the combined efforts of the Free the Bears fund and Wildlife at Risk, with support from Cát Tiên National Park. It is not yet accessible to tourists, but we are guests. We donate in the form of buying a couple of t-shirts.
The new sanctuary enclosure itself is huge, bordered by high chain-link and electrical fencing. The ultimate aim is to get rescued bears acclimated to one another and habituated to living there. The strategy is to confine them in a series of larger cages. Most of the bears there have been rescued from amusement parks or restaurants. Bear bile is a big and illegal business in Vietnam, considered to be medicine taken orally as a detoxifier. There are several ways to harvest bile. Some bears are slaughtered outright, some suffer crude surgeries to have their gall bladders removed. In some horrific cases, they are confined in restrictive cages and implanted with a tap so bile can be captured as the living gall bladder manufactures it. Federal support for conservation in Vietnam, in the form of applying measures enacted to illegalize trade in bile and other endangered animal products, as well as permissions for international wildlife conservation groups, is blossoming. But it’s an uphill battle against a population that reveres these practices as tradition. Even though it is illegal, bile can be found on many menus around the country where the practice is rarely even discouraged. To habituate these restaurant bears, rescuers first keep them in the smallest of the center’s cages, those most resembling their pens in the alleys behind illegal restaurants. They are then steadily introduced to larger and larger accommodation, closer and closer to other bears. Eventually, they are put into cages with others, with the ultimate goal being to release them into the large new enclosure out back. These bears are hopeless cases for ever being released into natural forest populations. Captured as cubs or born into captivity, they will never learn to hunt for food or avoid their predators in the wild.
Viewed as a zoo, the rescue center is a little dismal. Most of the bears, especially the bigger ones, have been hobbled in some way. They are missing claws or feet. They are not expected to survive through their natural life-spans due to bad surgery or other abuse. Still, they are happier than they’ve ever been in their lives, better fed, and their good mood is pretty infectious. They tussle with one another. They ferret food out of ingenious contraptions that have been made for them from rotating barrels or nets. As depressing as their stories are, it’s heartening that more and more animals are rescued every year.
I was just happy to be seeing bears. The park has both Asiatic black bears, called moon bears, and sun bears. Both have white or cream crescents on their chests. The moon bears are larger, shaggier medium-sized bears similar to black bears found in the USA. Sun bears are the smallest species of ursidae, and have short, soft fur and wide, bug-eyed faces with mildly stubby snouts. Most of the sun bears in the rescue center are little more than cubs, and live in side by side cages in the center’s one concrete building. While we were there they frolicked happily. Sunshine, who had gotten bread and berry jam for breakfast, was feeding her leftovers to the bears: holding each little dollop of preserves between the bars on the end of a stick. Bears like jam. Turns out, bears also like porridge. In a nearby concrete lean-to, several large cauldrons were already boiling away. These contained bear porridge, a concoction of whatever happens to be available: rice, grains, melons, occasionally liver or chicken. The bears like the porridge, we were told; but not the liver, which they pick out. This real-world connection between bears and porridge is my favorite new fact.
There are a few other animals in the rescue center besides bears. Two cages near the concrete building each hold a macaque. The pig-tail is nice enough, so we fed him rinds and seed pods through the bars. His neighbor, the long-tail, is a jerk who continuously caught our attention for threat displays. The threat displays were unintuitive, they looked like the macaque was yawning at us. These long-tails have pretty big canines, however, so even a bored-looking macaque seems fairly threatening. The monkeys begrudgingly put up with one another, but there is no love lost between them. Several doors down, past an impromptu garden, is an enclosure for rescued Siamese crocodiles. It is smallish, dominated by a crater-shaped cement pond. The water is mossy. When we walked up to the bars, one of the crocodiles was emerging from the water. Our host said it was the most he’d ever seen one move around. These crocs seem smallish, or perhaps the one we saw was pretty young. It was about four feet from nose to vent, twice that including the tail. Once he was out of the water, he stood absolutely still with his mouth open. He didn’t move again until after we were gone. Was this a threat display? Siamese crocodiles have pretty frightening teeth too. But with that moss all over his nose, he was pretty hard to see just several feet away. Somehow it seems more threatening that he was trying to be invisible. There was no sign of the other crocodile that is supposed to be in that cage.
Keeping this in mind, it is not all that surprising we never saw any of the namesakes in Crocodile Lake’s bright green waters. We didn’t exactly go looking for them. Directly below the ranger station there is a wooden plank leading through the marshy lakeside. At the end of this boardwalk two boats are tied. About midway, a rusting yellow sign asks visitors to please keep clear of the crocodiles. We are able to see this from the ranger’s observation deck, where we drink tea and take naps. Later, we walk five more kilometers back to where we are to meet up with the Isuzu. I suffer no more leech bites.
Later on, Sunshine and I take a turn night spotting. Now we are tourists. This is another ride on the same wooden pews, but much slower. It’s some kind of night safari. We are driven slowly and quietly down the track, hunting for whatever living things can be seen from the road. To help with this, a guide rides in the front pew swinging a spotlight here and there into the night. He’s looking for eyes or antlers or movement. Meanwhile Sunshine and I, plus four other tourists, keep as quiet as possible. We assume that if the puttering Isuzu or the bright spotlight doesn’t scare wild things off, that our voices might.
It has been difficult to get seats on this truck. At some point earlier today, a corporate youth group has arrived. We were informed that two hundred tourists were staying in the park, but it seems more like eighty to me. Either way, these night spotting runs are booked. There’s no way even eighty people can hike to Crocodile Lake together. The boardwalk bridge would never take the weight. So they’ve all piled into a really large truck with maybe forty seats, and these are running every half hour or so till everyone gets to do something in Cát Tiên. We’ve lucked out finding available pews on the little Isuzu, but I’m still pessimistic. With all those scheduled trips, it seems unlikely we’ll get to see much of anything. There was no room left for our hosts for come along. The seats we’ve gotten required some haggling with the woman behind the desk. She still seemed pretty skeptical that we’d be able to get on the truck, even after I’d paid her. Maybe she was mad about the blood.
One of the leech bites is high on my thigh, just under the front pocket of my jeans. When a leech bites, its saliva anesthetizes the area. Vietnamese leeches make a circular wound the size of a cigarette burn. Then they suck, raising a purple blood blister within the circumference of the bite. I couldn’t feel any of this at the time. I think this leech had to suck extra hard to get capillary blood out of the pretty thin layer of subcutaneous material covering that big muscle. Of all my leech bites, this one took the longest to heal and turned the nastiest black-purple color. A leech also carries an anticoagulant in its saliva. This keeps the blood flowing freely through the tiny holes it’s made. Unlike a tick, who will eat himself to death, a leech will take what he wants and then abandon the host, balling up and dropping to the ground. I never saw any of the leeches that bit me. I detected their presence because of bites that kept bleeding and bleeding all afternoon. The bite on my thigh was the last discovered. Our host noticed the blood when it soaked through my pants. To do this, it had to soak not only through the thick layer of denim, but also through that front pocket. That’s where I’d stashed all the money we’d need for the day. In Vietnam, bigger bills are plastic and easy to wipe clean. But my smaller, paper denominations soaked a lot of that blood up. More blood than seems possible. Blood that would normally have dried into a crust, but now wouldn't coagulate. Later on, when we ate lunch, I was able to pick and choose bills that were minimally affected. But from that point on, I felt increasingly shy about paying for anything with pocket money that got more blood-soaked as the day progressed. The last thing I paid for was the night spotting safari. By then, all my bills were red, stiff, and felt slightly sweaty. But she took them anyway.
Since I assumed we’d see little on the safari, this is how I consoled myself: it was a beautiful night for what would amount to a hay ride. The stars were out and it was cool and breezy. Honestly, the bigger part of my excitement was this uncertainty about seeing any animals. It’s what made this more exciting than the zoo, where spotting an animal is expected. Not seeing anything seemed to be what we’d paid for, what would validate the chance we wanted to take.
We are driven in a new direction around the park. Here, the forest woodlands we’ve gotten used to give way to grasslands and even some cultivated farms. Soon enough we are under a close canopy of bamboo growing arched over the road. Then the skies are clear again. The four strangers in the car seem to be from New York City. They have never seen so many stars. I can sympathize, there are frequently no stars in the Hồ Chí Minh City skies, either. Tonight it’s clear enough for me to have some trouble identifying constellations. They are just too obscured with extraneous dots, the familiar nearly invisible in all the extra. I recognize Orion and the Big Dipper and Mars. The wind is exhilarating. At one point, passengers in a returning truck, the one thirty minutes ahead of us, point into a field and tell us there are wild pigs. “I’ve got it, I see it” our guide says, focusing his handheld floodlight at a patch of nearby grass. We sit frozen, excited, seeing nothing. “It’s right there,” he tells us. I can tell by the New York whispers around me that nobody else can see anything, either; but we all keep looking. Soon enough a tusk moves in the grass, and a whole damn pig becomes obvious around it. I have no idea how the guide has seen this thing. It’s much bigger than I’d expected. I’d been looking for a little dot out in that field. Later, when the pig begins to move off, the spotlight picks out another and another. It’s like they’re invisible until they move.
Throughout the drive we see bats. We see an endless supply of wheeling beetles who cannot seem to dodge the truck. These hit us and stick, so we flick them off again onto each other, the guide, the New Yorkers. The sambar we see is huge. I thought they were the size of little deer but he’s as big as a ram. The sambar stands in grass to his belly, grazing, when the guide spotlights him. Then he freezes with his eyes at the grass line. All I can see at first is the two reflected dots of the tapetum lucidum behind his retinas. But I can’t figure which parts of the surrounding darkness and vegetation go with those dots. Then he cocks his head and starts to shuffle off. At that point I realize everything I can see is part of the same sambar, his antlers looming like trees in the background. But the spotlight is resting only on him. We’ve turned around by now, our trip almost over. We pick up a little speed past landmarks I recognize from earlier. Beetles spang off our heads as we go. The wind has gotten chilly. My favorite moment of the whole night comes here, when we meet with the other truck coming down the road, the truck thirty minutes behind ours. Approaching one another, both vehicles slow down. Then I notice the bright eyes of some little animal in our truck’s headlights, its dark bump silhouetted by the oncoming vehicle. It gazes back and forth for a minute, eye dots flashing, and then scurries on off the road.
I have no idea what that little animal was. It seemed to be about raccoon-sized. And it was either stupid or crazy or brave. With all that night at its disposal, it managed to cross the street right front of the only two moving vehicles in the whole park.
I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep the night before we leave Cát Tiên National Park. It makes the car trip home a little more wearing. The youth group visiting from the city were having a bonfire in the field beside the compound’s reception building, so there as a loud emcee and drumming pretty late into the night. For a while we crashed this party. Musicians and drummers had come from a nearby village to perform traditional dances. They stepped in a snaking line around the fire, rhythmically beating shallow copper drums. They wore interesting traditional-style garments. The youths were dancing in line with them, led around the fire. Anyone could join in. We were welcomed to the table of food, too, welcome to share their booze. Two large vats of young red wine were being heated over orange coals. The vats were also stuffed with leaves and spices, maybe fruit. This worked sort of like a keg, but instead of a tap and plastic cups, people lined up again and again to suck warm herbal wine through long wooden straws. It tasted really complex and interesting the first time, but too sweet, with a cloyingly synthetic honey finish. The second time it wasn’t so good. As the wine was drunk, the vats were filled back up to level with warm water. It was a youth group, after all.
Back in our room, I’d laid under the netting trying to read a little bit in the hard glow from the florescent light. I was beginning to get a headache, but whether that was from the light or the weird honey wine I couldn’t know. Sometimes it’s hard for me to lay down with a headache. It’s always hard to read with one. The only room available for fidgeting around was the bathroom. Sunshine was asleep already. It was way too difficult to put on my boots just to pace around outside. The light in the bathroom is too bright also, also too green. Every surface in the bathroom tilts down, including the counter behind the sink. I kept my toothbrush in a plastic bag the ants can’t get into if it rolled off the counter. The toilet sits in the middle of the wall under a window, between the showerhead and its drain. The shower is perplexing, hoses spooling from an electric wall-mounted box with push-button controls. The directions for use are in English, but they are still mystifying. I suspect the box heats the water between the wall and the nozzle. There are pictographs illustrating the dangers of allowing the water from the nozzle to spray onto the box. In the close quarters of the bathroom, I didn’t see how that could be helped. Eventually my headache started to subside. I padded around, barefoot, quiet, turning out the lights, giving up on reading for the night. It was impossible for me to get into the mosquito net without waking Sunshine up.
It’s not just me. It’s difficult to get in and out of bed through the net. I was aware of Sunshine coming through the net in the dark, returning from the bathroom a little later. Perhaps with enough practice we would get more nimble about this. Light from the street cast a small glow into the room. I could barely see that the net was closed properly behind her. “Be careful” she told me. “I just killed a scorpion in the bathroom.” She held her fingers up, about two inches apart.
It does me no good to be sleepy for this bus ride home. The whole trip is aboard one of the smaller busses, like that second one we rode in on. These are really no more than large vans, with fifteen seats including the driver’s. We’re the first ones aboard, picking the bus up at the ferry quay on the far side of the river. We’ve already left Cát Tiên behind. Oddly, this daylight travel is slower than the travel we did the other night, the driver’s not nearly so reckless. I am concerned it will take us a long time to get home, as we comb the countryside for more and more travelers. But it doesn’t. Over the five-hour drive, the bus stops many times, picking up people, letting them off. It’s very crowded. At one point I am able to see twenty-nine people in the bus, standing, crouching, sitting on laps. There are two dozen green coconuts in the space between our seats and the back doors. There are five people back there too. I am so pressed in that my elbow sticks out the open window into the rain, but it’s the close traffic that worries me. Five hours.
I sit there thinking about our day today. We got up pretty early this morning, too. We ate the same breakfasts in the same cantina, and fed Sunshine’s jam to the baby sun bears. We watched adolescent sun bears tussle in the crater-shaped cement pool of the large enclosure. After, we went out on a short hike down a trail just behind the compound. I’d put on my leech socks before anyone else had. We were looking for monkeys, but I was never sure what kind. Our hosts study black-shanked doucs in the woods here, but I have the feeling those are usually found somewhat north or our location. According to our hosts, there is a group of pig-tailed macaques nearby. They occasionally visit the friendly caged macaque, coming almost all the way into the rescue center. Maybe it is these macaques we went looking for. We didn’t see any monkeys, which came as no real surprise. I hadn’t gotten any better at walking through the woods since yesterday.
The forest just behind the compound was very different from what we’d seen on the first day. Often close and dense bamboo and rattan thickets closed around us, choking out taller plants. These areas were interesting—so much brighter green and yellow, sunnier with far less room to maneuver around in, brighter with less direct sunlight. Just as often, we were in open areas with high ceilings dangling epiphytes and creeper vines with long thorns, darker but dappled with yellow rays. In the distance I was able to hear animals move through the woods, but I never saw anything except birds and butterflies. Some nearby huffing grunts alarmed me for awhile, reminding me of the three wild pigs we’d seen not too far away the night before, but then our hosts told me it was a squirrel. The loud barking we heard in the distance was apparently a deer. Soon we turned around and headed back to the compound again. It was almost time to catch the ferry and the bus.
If I learned anything about the jungle over the weekend, it’s about potential. In a zoo there are animals in labeled cages, just where you expect to see them. Mostly, this means that there are no animals to be found elsewhere. But in the jungle there is potential everywhere. Invisible wildlife can be anywhere; apparently they can sound like anything. They leave signs of their existence—dots in the night, some seedy scat, bloody circles—and sometimes they emerge immediately for their surroundings. But mostly they remain potential animals: invisible, everywhere, smaller or larger than reality, in the dark or behind the trees in the green.
Related pages of interest include:
The official site of Cat Tien National Park
The official site of the Free the Bears Fund
The official site of Wildlife at Risk
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