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Book Review: The Last Unicorn by William deBuys

Embarking on a treacherous expedition without any certainty about whether the intrepid team will find any evidence of what it is after—and then writing a book after not finding that evidence—is a risky gamble, but one that pays off in wonderful and unexpected ways in Pulitzer Prize finalist William deBuy’s The Last Unicorn.

In The Last Unicorn, deBuys captures his incredible 2011 adventure to central Laos with Saola Working Group coordinator Bill Robichaud, in search of evidence of the Saola, a hoofstock species that no biologist has ever seen in the wild, earning it the nickname Asian “unicorn.” Robichaud has spent decades looking for the Saola in the Annamite Mountain Range on the border of Vietnam and Laos and an equal amount of time developing strategies to help conserve it.

deBuys is so intrigued after hearing about Saola for the first time in 2009 that he gets on a plane that year to attend a meeting of the Saola Working Group in Laos, where he meets Robichaud. The two plot and plan and in February and March of 2011, find themselves in Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area in Laos primarily to look for potential Saola habitat and evaluate poaching levels in the area, but also, they both hoped, to find evidence of a living Saola.

“I really knew almost nothing about the animal until I arrived in Vientiane for the first SWG meeting,” says deBuys, who will be in Madison, Wisconsin, April 6 to read from his book. “More than anything, it was an adventure, and the prospect of an expedition promised a good story. Maybe the oldest form of human story is the journey or quest, and that is what our trip into NNT became.”

The Last Unicorn captures the trials and tribulations of a journey deep into the jungle, rife with rigorous physical challenges that deBuys recounts in detail as his body adjusts to the grueling trek, discoveries of the brutalized bodies of animals caught in snares and left to suffer, and guides who sneak carefully rationed food late at night in a brazen attempt to cut the trip short to get back to girlfriends sooner.

More importantly, in just as much detail, deBuys captures the wonder and the beauty, so much poetic beauty, of the forests and wildlife around him. Nature itself seems to take on the shape of one of the book’s driving characters—and certainly a driving force for conservationist and author alike.

“Here is a feature of many quest stories: you start out looking for one thing, but you find out you really need to be after another,” deBuys says. “In the case of The Last Unicorn, we wind up having an encounter, not with Saola, but with Deep Beauty. The revelations of nature’s beauty are in the end the most surprising thing I encountered and I think they changed me. They certainly changed the ethical and conceptual lenses through which I view the world.”

Robichaud has committed his life to conserving that same beauty and with him at the head of the expedition, it’s no wonder that he emerges as the book’s main “character.” Whether Robichaud expected that when he agreed to bring a writer along is another matter.

“I was taken aback by how much deBuys put me in the book. I thought I was just the tour guide. If I’d known otherwise, I would have edited myself more,” Robichaud says with a smile. “But after 20 years working in the Annamites, I enjoyed seeing it through ‘new eyes’—in the company of a keen observer, as all good writers are, who was experiencing it for the first time.”

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Robichaud and deBuys do not lay eyes on a Saola, or even come across evidence of Saola. The only recent proof that Saola may still be out there is a camera trap image taken in 2013. But details about evidence of the Saola become secondary to the details of the story of the Saola: its remarkable scientific discovery, its sporadic and brief moments in captivity, and the painstaking political and cultural negotiations that will ultimately determine the species’ fate.

The Last Unicorn, too, may play its own powerful role in helping to conserve the species.

“One of the main constraints on Saola conservation is that so few people have heard of this remarkable animal,” Robichaud says. “This book goes a long way to redressing that. Also, the book doesn’t mince words at the difficulties conservation faces in that part of the world, while balancing it with a credible message of hope.”

deBuys says he is currently working on a book that continues the ethical journey described in The Last Unicorn and draws on a 140-mile, 33-day trek he made in Nepal last fall. He also has book coming out with Yale University Press called First Impressions: A Reader’s Guide to Iconic Places in the American Southwest.

Order an autographed copy of The Last Unicorn today from GWC and proceeds will help benefit Saola conservation by emailing Sam Reza, GWC financial manager, at sreza@globalwildlife.org.

About the Author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the associate director of communications for Global Wildlife Conservation and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.