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Uncharted territory

Vietnam A Natural History Eleanor Jane Sterling, Martha Maud Hurley and Le Duc Minh Yale University Press: 424 pp., $40

July 16, 2006|John Balzar | Staff writer John Balzar is the author of "Yukon Alone: The World's Toughest Adventure Race."

IN 1992, Western scientists cataloged the "discovery" of the planet's largest new mammal in more than half a century, a forest-dwelling ox named the saola. Not merely a new species, it represented an entirely unrecorded genus of life. As of the June publication of "Vietnam: A Natural History," scientists still had not sighted another free-ranging saola in the wild, although villagers sometimes kill an animal for meat.

Since then, researchers in Vietnam have identified three new species of deer and a striking striped rabbit -- 63 new terrestrial vertebrates and 45 fish. An animal once thought extinct on the Asian mainland, the lesser one-horned rhinoceros, was rediscovered. A wild pig, a monkey, a pheasant and at least two other varieties of birds have been re-sighted almost a century after they were identified and then vanished from scientists' view.

The era of grand biological discovery pretty much ended long ago across most of the globe. Not so for Vietnam, which continues its struggle to emerge from the darkness of war.

This natural history, compiled by three scientists from the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at New York's American Museum of Natural History, is the latest chapter in the postwar development of one of the world's most remarkable, and mysteriously rich, landscapes.

A comprehensive and knowingly illustrated scientific work that hints of more discoveries to come, the volume is engagingly readable. It deserves attention from those with a curiosity for contemporary biological exotica, as well as the increasing legions of tourists bound for the socialist republic, not just on account of rare and odd things that inhabit the east coast of Indochina but also because of the staggering variety of everyday flora and fauna.

A nation about 20% smaller California with more than twice as many residents, Vietnam now faces a paradox of a more familiar kind. Even as new animals and plants are discovered, they are being jeopardized by roads, an expanding population, over-harvesting and pollution. Perhaps tourism, an important pillar of the government's economic growth plan, will forestall some of the damage -- if visitors and residents alike truly comprehend the bounty before them.

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