The dragon swallows thousands of creatures every day. Its stomach growls as it senses the approach of its latest prey. Above, four hundred pairs of eyes peer down excitedly at the dragon’s sprawling red-and-gold bulk. The creatures hear wings flapping and adjusting and feet stomping on the ground. They brace themselves for the touchdown.
A thump pushes air out of their lungs, leaving an echo of sighs in the air. Looking at each other and back out at the dragon, they cheer with joy. Clicking sounds release them and ignite the chatter of their different tongues. Knowing the dragon’s mouth is just a short distance away, they crawl over one another as they reach for their belongings. They wait impatiently for the sign directing them to move toward the dragon’s mouth. With arms weighted down by their possessions, some clinging to their young, they surge toward the open jaws. The narrow passage opens up to the dragon’s tall, red ribs, illuminating the long gullet stretching three kilometers into its bowels.
Terminal 3 at the Beijing Capital International Airport opens its automated, adorned, red glass doors, welcoming citizens returning home and tourists from around the world. The cavernous space hums with excitement. Laughter pierces the crowd with smiles shining in the morning sun, coming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The travelers scan the luggage carousel monitors. A ding warns all who hear it to stand clear. The carousel cavity begins to expel one piece of luggage at a time. All eyes focus on each item until its owner identifies and removes it.
Dragging his or her belongings, each passenger declares to a customs officer his or her final destination, reason for visit, and duration. Each person hands over a passport to the customs officers for inspection. The officers carefully examine the photos and particulars and study the passports’ remaining pages. They stamp the pages with loud clanks to finalize the inspections and then return the passports. The passengers resume their smiles.
The crowd meanders through the dragon’s bowels, every person’s compass pointing toward the endless service of trains, taxis, and shuttles. Heatha collects her luggage and follows the sign indicating “straight ahead” for the train.
* * *
Heatha left an African nation where self-destructive behavior is dolefully unconscious due to the daily struggles of life brought on by the exceptional levels of poverty and the government apathy to help its people. One of the many consequences is the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory tusks that feeds the ever-growing demands in Asia, while filling the pockets of the corrupt and murderers, resulting in the senseless death of countless animals and people, including my brutal murder. My friendship with Heatha started shortly after she arrived in the small northern Congolese village Obak. As a result of her experiences in an attempt to prevent these irrational killings Heatha was left haunted by what she knew had happened to me and tormented herself by wondering what role she played in the final outcome, what could she have done differently, and what more could she have done to prevent my slaughter. Heatha knew that once my tusks stretched out on her office floor were removed from sight, I would be gone forever, never to be seen again. But for the past few years, Heatha had learned a great deal about the wildlife trafficking business and knew that I would likely end up in Beijing, so when the time was right, she set out on a quest to find me. Heatha needed to know where I was and that the only thing left to do was to atone for having given up the fight. She believed she had failed me.
* * *
Not everyone who came up the Asang River was a tourist. Some came to work. I first saw Heatha while she was traveling by pirogue up the river to Obak, a small village approximately forty kilometers south of the national park. She was sitting back in a tiny, wooden chair, watching the sky as the pirogue slowly meandered around the sandbanks. The three passengers behind her were also transfixed by the beauty above and around them. I was walking along the riverbank, behind the trees. Heatha could not see me, but I could see her.
I watched as she arrived at the small port. Children were playing in the water; women were bent over, briskly rubbing clothing and soap together against rocks; and the men were coming in with the fish catch of the day. Heatha’s crew greeted and welcomed her with handshakes.
I was always curious about newcomers in the area. It would be more difficult to see her up close there, though, because unlike at the park headquarters, I could not freely walk around Obak without causing some kind of disturbance. I watched as one of the villagers unloaded her luggage from the pirogue and put it in the truck. I followed the truck with my eyes and took note of which house along the riverbank Heatha would move into. It was the small, dark brown wooden one with a balcony facing the river. I hoped she would spend time out there. It would allow me to visit with her more easily.
To make this possible, just before sunset I would swim to the small island in the middle of the Asang River and directly across from her house. The grass was tall enough that I would not be too visible. Then I could finish crossing once it was dark and climb up the riverbank to the backyard of the house, where I could see her and she could see me as well.
A few days after Heatha’s arrival, I was walking around the park headquarters when I overheard that she was the new project director for a conservation organization, Initiative Wildlife Foundation (IWF). Heatha was assigned the role of principal technical advisor with the project’s partners, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Forestry (MEAF) and the corporation Bois Tropical (BT), to help manage the logging concessions on the periphery of Ilabaoun Ikodn National Park.