Beast Dreaming

Conservation biologist Nicholas Wilkinson had been working on the mythical antelope of the Vietnamese forests for most of his adult life, but had never seen a living saola. And then the dilemma about saving this critically endangered species from extinction came into his dreams.
is a conservation biologist who has been working on the Critically Endangered saola since 2006. He has worked in various roles with WWF, the IUCN-SSC Saola Working Group and the Universities of Cambridge, Kent and Vinh in Vietnam. Much of his research work has considered the question of using information provided by local people in conservation decision-making. He lives in Cambridgeshire, England.

For more than five years now my life has been dominated by a dream I had in a Cambodian village. 

I was lying in my hammock under the house of the village head, feeling happy that my work was done. After a few days training students to conduct interviews about the bear bile trade, I would no longer have to worry about datasheets, or public bathing, or where to shit in the cashew orchard. Although I knew the village’s fiddle-thin dogs would all start howling sometime in the night, I was alone and comfortable and the stars were bright. In fact, it was the first time I felt able to rest in a fortnight of travel and worry and work. I’d come from a workshop in Hanoi where we’d finally made the hard decision to seek out any surviving saola and bring them to bay with dogs and so into captivity. The decision turned out to be easy but the meetings were stressful nonetheless. Now I could look out at the Milky Way and stop worrying about the broken lands around. I fell asleep with headphones in, listening to a Welsh storyteller, Michael Harvey, tell the oldest legend of King Arthur.

I dreamed, however, of Troy. 

In my dream the Greek captains were gathered before their tents with the city walls beyond and Achilles stepped forward. ‘If you actually want to win this war,’ he said, ‘then here is how it’s done: we travel through our own dreams into the Underworld. The roads go down to the Underworld from every place above so we can travel those same roads back up to anywhere. We will choose to come up on the Isle of Ithaca and there find its queen, the lady Penelope, and all of us will rape her, one by one.’ 

In the logic of my dream this plan made perfect sense. Odysseus, listening on the edge of the assembly, had to confess its brilliance: of course, when he puts his mind to it, Achilles is as great at plans as he is at everything else. Unlike the original, my dream Odysseus thought the war was a grand noble cause and accepted the gang-rape of his wife. I’m not this classically epic on a regular basis. I dream a lot about Batman and Star Wars and getting lost at airports, but I think this dream wanted me to know that it meant business. It was clear enough what it was talking about. 

A collection of saola skulls and horns in hunters’ houses. A pair of horns and a skull like these were what first alerted scientists to the existence of the species in 1992.

Saola are forest antelopes with long, gently backward-sweeping horns. I’d handled many sets of these horns in hunters’ houses and been told how the beast would lower its head to the dogs when at bay. Unlike the flaky, twisty horns of sheep and kudu, the saola’s black horns are bone up to the tip and could easily skewer a dog. But a hunter’s dogs only have to  keep barking at the beast until their master comes, so saola were easy to catch; in the days when they could still be found. One man told me that, to catch one alive, he had just grabbed a horn in each hand and, with the help of his comrades, flipped the animal onto its back. That saola died in their arms because, he said, the gills in the sides of its face filled up when they turned it upside-down.

Antelopes do not, of course, have gills. What the hunter had seen was the saola’s unique scent gland,  a downward-facing mucilaginous purse, covered with a fleshy awning and large enough to stick three human fingers into. As no other animal has such an organ, you can forgive him for being confused. However, this saola probably died of capture myopathy rather than suffocation. This fatal condition, common in antelopes and birds, has no easy human analogue but makes intuitive sense to those familiar with human trauma. The need to escape a predator  is so overwhelming that the animal’s body will abandon its ordinary systems of governance and exert itself so badly that its muscles dissolve, sometimes even those of its heart.

Even if that doesn’t happen, it can kill over days as the acid building in the blood precipitates  iron from the disintegrating flesh into crystals which rupture the capillaries of the kidneys and the lungs. Prevention is the only real cure. By trying to capture wild saola, we risk losing the whole species this way. Alternatively,  if the dying is not comprehensive, it is selective and of course selective dying is what transforms species.  This particular transformation must be part of the process we call ‘domestication’. Antelopes are undomesticated by definition; the word refers to any creature in the cow family that isn’t a cow, sheep, goat, or buffalo. My point is that the metaphor of rape did not exaggerate the trauma. Also, though, the dream didn’t stop me.

Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), one of the world’s rarest mammals, is found only in the Annamite Range of Vietnam and Laos (photo: Wiki Commons)

Saola are forest-dwellers and their coats are chocolate brown. They feed, I’m told, on the aroids and the king ferns in the stream-cut gullies of the mountains where they live. The white watercolour brushmarks on their faces are in the pattern that slanting light throws on the underside of boulders from the surface of those streams. They live (or lived) in the border cordillera between Vietnam and Laos and only along half of its length. On the flat taupe continents of the red list maps this global range is tiny, but even on a Google Earth flyby you can see the hills are cut like the carnassials of dogs; there’s a lot of land packed in.

If you are actually struggling up their red mud chutes or through their banks of coral fern and bamboo, or finally working up their waterfalls with fingers in the moss – well then it can take days to move a few kilometres as the hornbill flies (or would do if it hadn’t been shot). In any case, outside this ‘tiny’ area, saola were unknown to humans before 1992 when a set of horns was found in a hunter’s house by an incredulous WWF team. No living animal so large and so distinctive had been discovered by science in 90 years and it is hardly surprising that none other has been discovered since. I read about it in a BBC Wildlife magazine when I was twelve. 

No living animal so large and so distinctive had been discovered by science in 90 years and it is hardly surprising that none other has been discovered since.

Although I have been working on the species most of my adult life, I have never seen a living saola. The earlier cohort of conservationists got to see the few that survived a while under dubious care. I got to touch the horns and the shrivelled skin on the heads which hung in hunters’ houses before even those were sold. From 2007 to 2009, I’d drink tea in bamboo houses, on plastic spaghetti mats, under those heads and ask questions of the men who’d cut them off. I noted the names of the streams in a language which burrs and ruts in your throat to get out: A Shech, Triahh, K’Drrieng, Ta’Vieng, Hra Loong. Some of these names are those of spirits, revealed from the possessed throats of villagers, others signalled a story of violent death and the presence of jealous ghosts. One stream was just called ‘Fuck Stream’ and I never found out why; it wasn’t my department.

In the day we looked for footprints on the slopes, while the leeches turned their green and gold heads towards us from everywhere and the barbets repeated themselves in the treetops. There was one camera trap photo, in 2013, from a WWF machine but I can’t claim any credit. I wonder what I’ve been doing with my life. Seriously, I do.

When forest guard patrols finally started in 2011 after Vietnam’s last rhino was killed by poachers, they pulled out tens of thousands of snares with no sign of any reduction by 2015. The cities are now just a few hours by motorbike from the impoverished villages. The camera trapping effort to produce that one 2013 photo was impressive by normal standards. We could just keep saying we knew nothing for certain but that would be cowardice; best guess was that saola were so rare the sexes couldn’t even meet. 

In the 1990s, conservation literature  was making the case that zoos weren’t safe places for a species after all. However, by 2010 it seemed unlikely that Vietnam’s protected areas could ever be made safer. Helping shift the discussion towards captive breeding was the best thing I ever did for the species and tragic sentiments made no difference to that logic, no difference to what we ought to do. The problem with the metaphor of rape is that rape, unlike killing, is never justified by any broader context.

Helping shift the discussion towards captive breeding was the best thing I ever did for the species and tragic sentiments made no difference to that logic, no difference to what we ought to do.

When I did tell my dream to other people, I felt disgusted at the person talking through my mouth. He would either sound proud of having made a hard decision or proud of having had a meaningful dream. Did I really care about the saola at all? That was just something else to feel guilty about. My life was a trolley problem.

The morning after the dream, the Cambodian forests were broken and flat. We walked down a logging road made by men or powers that could outshadow the law. The big trees were gone and the small ones stood around in their vine clusters, waiting for the termites; the forest’s ribs were open to the sky. When we got to town, I wrote the dream down at an inkblot-shaped table in a cafe. It was inkblot-shaped because it was a slice from a big-buttressed tree. ‘Anyone will serve if you take a chainsaw to them,’ I wrote. The tiny bright-eyed baby at the next table seemed like another recruit for the army of destruction. I was only a foot soldier in that army myself, as proven by the fact I’d bought the coffee. This was a familiar kind of story for me by that point, although now, reading back, I wonder if the saola’s knuckled, braided, haunted forests ever seemed quite as passive as these dry Cambodian plains.

And here’s something else; something I’d have leapt on in an instant if this were someone else’s dream: why is the saola Penelope? Isn’t she a woman who, despite everything, sits down every evening to reweave the vulnerable tissue of her power to consent or refuse? And isn’t she also the only person to ever wrong-foot Odysseus? What has such a lady to do with a creature that hasn’t even the sense to slip off a noose from its own foot? Surely, for a beast with no language, consent is a nonsense? When I was desperate enough to recount my dream to a friend who had actually survived rape she told me only to listen. She said it with some passion. But what was I supposed to listen to? Even in my dream the lady didn’t appear, and we have no quarry for our dogs. 

A pair of real saola horns flank an altar in a Katu home in Central Vietnam.

Three years later, on my way to another conservation workshop, I had another dream. This time I was in an AirBnB holiday apartment in a former Malaysian hill station. I had been out all day walking alone through forests which were not unlike the saola’s own. Again, I was happy.

This dream threw me into the backstreets of a city. I couldn’t say where it was but the stinking green lake was a Hanoian touch as was the French bulldog in a little pink T-shirt, running around under the restaurant tables. The family who owned the restaurant stole my laptop with all my saola work on it. I tracked them down and – well – I got my revenge on them.  But the bit I want to talk about is what happened after that. In the studio of an artist who looked like Aleister Crowley, I saw words flashing before my eyes: 

‘Don’t ascribe curiosity to the young; curiosity is for the old.’                                                                                                            Tiamat

Even in a vision within a dream on a mountain on the other side of the world, I thought it funny that you could use actual quote marks to attribute something to a Babylonian dragon goddess of primal chaos. It looked like a motivational poster. Nevertheless, I began to make a clay relief picture of Tiamat herself. I painted a flat sea, broken by a curve of a back which bore up her great, sculpted, frill-horned head. Then I rolled a big ball of clay for an eyeball. When I dropped the eyeball into the socket, I found it wet with a greenish slime which slid back to reveal her real eye underneath. It was big, yellow and slit, and regarded me with a vicious intelligence I had thought was uniquely human. As she held my gaze, her twisted head lifted out of the picture and a second socket opened on its side, a great dark slit which gaped like a gill. I woke then, but only when I was writing it down did I realise that I’d been looking at a saola’s premaxillary gland.

Of course, the easiest interpretation is that a lot of frankly disturbing stuff in my subconscious has become linked to an image of the saola and has nothing at all to do with the real saola out there in the forest. So the sudden, horrible life of that dragon’s head didn’t come from anywhere outside the alembic of my mind.

But let’s say I attend with curiosity to the alternative. Across the world, I am told, sex is forbidden before a hunt because the animals get jealous. Or rather the female spirits to whom those animals belong. And maybe the idea of such spirits isn’t actually all that strange to someone, like me, who has to handle the scientifically dubious idea of a ‘species’ which somehow transcends the individuals that compose it. If I’m really honest I’ll admit to my fancies of hoofprints blooming somehow in the dust piles on my heart or appearing on tattered bus maps on Hanoi cafe tables sometimes in lipstick. I mentioned these only in my notebooks but, after the dream in Cambodia, they dried up. I felt I’d lost the right to talk like that.

I’d thought that dream, with its collective decision to accept rape, was about horror at my own shared power and the moral choices it entailed. Perhaps the truth is that, if I want to act, and I don’t want to behave like a rapist, I have to choose communication. But I am frightened of who I’ll end up in communication with. The forest spirits in the saola’s own hills once fed enthusiastically on the blood of kidnapped children and the people feared them still. I remember a man rejoicing that they’d been driven back to their sources by the power of ‘the Revolution’, by which he meant the modern world.

I think of the nights hiding in my hammock in those hills while glow worms moved over the boulders and I tried not to think of white ankles disturbing the stream. As the light failed, shadows took shape between me and the stars and I’d close the  hammock over me because, as I put it then, tomorrow would be hard work and I needed my sleep.


If you would like to know more about the saola you can find more here: 


Dark Mountain: Issue 19

Our spring 2019 issue is an anthology of prose, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of death, lament and regeneration


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