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The Last Unicorn

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Science  19 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6241, pp. 1308
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab2165

An expedition to find a live unicorn would certainly seem foolhardy. Fortunately, in his latest book, The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures, William deBuys attempts a slightly more achievable aim: accompanying conservation biologist William Robichaud to the Annamite Mountains on the Laos-Vietnam border in search of the elusive saola. This recently discovered species is most straightforwardly described as an ox that looks like an oryx, or an antelope-like cow. It is a ghostlike animal with two curving, sabre-like horns and a natural history that we know practically nothing about.

The book reads like a gripping travelogue, but it also operates at a deeper level, leading us to question how we choose which species to conserve, how growing human populations can fit into a fracturing landscape, and how to value nature in the light of widespread poverty. A desire to conserve the natural world is one shared by many, but the underlying reasons for such a perspective stubbornly resist attempts to be rationalized: Some see nature as providing irreplaceable services, others see it as housing as-yet-undiscovered biological innovations, and still others believe that the aesthetics of the natural world alone endow it with great value. Although deBuys addresses these arguments directly in his writing, it is telling that we learn so much about how humans interact with nature during the incidental moments of despair, awe, and hope that bubble up throughout the expedition's narrative.

So why look to protect the saola? It is certainly in need, as it is critically threatened by both hunting and the loss of its natural habitat. Another potential reason is that it has, over time, become isolated from its closest relatives (bison and buffalo) and represents a long, unique evolutionary path—a rare event in nature reserved for the likes of the platypus, the horseshoe crab, and the coelacanth. We know little about evolutionarily isolated species and their specific roles within the ecosystem, and until we know more, their conservation would seem prudent.

But moving from a desire to protect toward effective action is often fraught with problems. Indeed, this book offers valuable insights into the wholly compromised and often chaotic world of field surveying and the reality of conservation in a remote environment. The central chapters are replete with lost trails, diminishing rations, and the increasingly conflicting needs and expectations of the crew and local communities.

“How do you save a ghost if you are not sure it exists?” asks William deBuys

ILLUSTRATION: BRENDANSCOTTWENZEL

When describing those living at the coal-face of biodiversity loss in the tropics, there is a temptation for condescension: pitting enlightened westerners against the benighted locals. De Buys does not fall into this trap, remaining both pragmatic about the livelihoods of indigenous populations and horrified by the unbridled extraction of the forest's rich biological resources. He soberly notes that areas such as the Annamite Mountains “have so much further to fall” in terms of biodiversity that could be lost than, for example, the temperate forests of his childhood in the United States.

Part action adventure, part an exploration of loss, this book is a journey for both the heart and the mind.

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