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Going where the wild things are

by Sarah Rooney

BEYOND THE LAST VILLAGE: A Journey of Discovery in Asia’s Forbidden Wilderness, by Alan Rabinowitz. Aurum Press, 2002, 300 pp., 19.99 British pounds (cloth)

Marco Polo went to Myanmar in the 13th century and saw jungles teeming with wild beasts and unicorns. Centuries later, during British colonial times, Myanmar was renowned for its spectacular game hunting reserves. Today, however, widespread deforestation under the current military regime is destroying wildlife habitat. National parks account for a measly 1 percent of the country’s total land area. And as for Marco Polo’s “unicorn,” the rhinoceros has all but vanished from what was once its stronghold in Asia. In short, the future of Myanmar’s wildlife looks bleak. “Beyond the Last Village” chronicles one conservationist’s search for hope in the country’s remaining wilderness.

The book begins on a deceptively downbeat note. Alan Rabinowitz is director of the Science and Exploration Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York. Just as Myanmar’s wildlife seems on the verge of giving up the ghost, so too does Rabinowitz. After years in the field collecting information on the world’s disappearing species, Rabinowitz writes that this trip to Myanmar is “a last-ditch effort to convince myself that I still cared enough to try to make a difference in the world. That I still gave a damn.”

Indeed, his first forays into Myanmar’s jungles are depressing. Rabinowitz visits a former British game reserve that was to be a model park rivaling South Africa’s famed Kruger Park: “I watched a villager proudly tack a fresh leopard cat skin to the outside wall of his house while, behind him, military trucks lumbered by, filled with newly felled trees from within the sanctuary.”

Rabinowitz embarks on an expedition to Tahundan, the northern-most known settlement in Myanmar. This impossibly remote region borders India, Tibet and China, and is known to locals as “the icy mountains.” Rabinowitz’s aim is to gather information on existing wildlife to convince Myanmar’s Forestry Department to set up a wildlife sanctuary in the region. For this back-breaking, monthlong trek, Rabinowitz puts together an eclectic team of Myanmar specialists, including an orchid specialist, a dentist-cum-doctor, a 60-year-old cook, assorted university lecturers, a Buddhist monk and a small army of soldiers.

Against all odds, Rabinowitz’s tale turns into an uplifting one. The group’s first stop is the markets of the northern town, Putao, where wildlife parts are sold to traders. It is a heart-wrenching way to collect data on wild animals. Writes Rabinowitz: “Within the first hour I had a species list that included parts ranging from Himalayan black bear, black serow, wild dog, and leopard cats to some of the rarest, most unusual Himalayan species in the world — takin, musk deer, red goral and red panda.” But there is one animal part that Rabinowitz can’t identify; a tiny deerlike head, too small to belong to any known deer species. This mysterious skull continues to haunt him. As the team treks northward, they gather intelligence from local hunters who know the animal as the phet gyi, or “leaf deer,” because it is small enough that hunters can wrap it in a certain type of leaf after killing it. Eventually, Rabinowitz meets a hunter with a freshly killed leaf deer carcass. “I knelt down to examine what I’d already concluded was a juvenile common barking deer. As I pried open the animal’s mouth to examine her teeth, my heart-beat quickened. The teeth were worn and stained. I rolled her onto her back. The nipples were brown and wrinkled. This little deer was no juvenile. She was an old adult!” Later, back in New York, DNA tests confirm that this hitherto undiscovered animal is a new species, one of the smallest and most ancient true deer in the world. (Rabinowitz named it Muntiacus Putaoensis.)

People are as much a part of “Beyond the Last Village” as animals. Rabinowitz writes humorously of his first intriguing encounter, as seen through a camera lens, with the Taron, the world’s only pygmies of Asian ancestry. “Focusing the camera, I felt, and then saw out of the corner of my eye, a child brushing up against my leg. Turning with the camera still to my face, I was surprised to watch the viewfinder fill not with the body of a child but with the misshapen, dwarfish form of an old man with sad, rheumy eyes. Before I could snap the picture, the viewfinder was empty. I looked up in time to see him hobbling off before disappearing into a nearby house. I had just seen my first Taron.”

The Taron, who have an average height of 4.5 foot, were “discovered” in 1954 by a Myanmar general who estimated their population to be around 100. Today, Rabinowitz discovers, there are only 12 pure-blood Taron left. Intense inbreeding among this small group has resulted in mental retardation and high infant mortality, but there is a more chilling reason for their rapid decline; the Taron have chosen to make themselves extinct. As one Taron told Rabinowitz, “When we have babies, the babies have small brains and small bodies. It was not good. We don’t want Taron babies anymore.”

There are many other haunting moments along the journey. Alongside discoveries in the field, are Rabinowitz’s personal discoveries. We meet the author as a young boy rendered almost mute by a paralyzing stammer and see him as a troubled husband resistant to the idea of fatherhood. It is the people he meets and writes about on this trip, such as the Taron, that enable him to come to terms with his own life.

Optimism for Myanmar’s wildlife is also restored. Rabinowitz’s work convinces Myanmar’s generals to set up a number of wildlife sanctuaries that more than triple Myanmar’s protected land area. In these sanctuaries, hunters are retrained as wildlife surveyors and put their extensive knowledge into protecting animals, rather than killing them.

Above all, “Beyond the Last Village” is a celebration of discovery and survival. “Our world remains a wondrous place,” writes Rabinowitz. “You can still find your way to the end of the last dirt roads, where maps show nothing but river blue and forest green . . . There are still worlds to be explored where few have come before you and where mystery is waiting to be turned into knowledge.”