The Last Rhinoceros

A new book delves into the race between preservation and destruction in Vietnam’s magnificent wilderness.

In 2011, careful newspaper readers might have noticed a small article tucked away in the science and environment sections, which said that authorities had determined that sometime during the previous year, Vietnam’s last Javan rhino had been killed by poachers in Cat Tien National Park. Rangers had found the enormous bullet-riddled corpse with its horn sawn off. It had taken more than a year to determine absolutely that this had been the very last rhino in Vietnam, and that there were no others hiding in the bush. A typical story, such as the one on the BBC News website, noted that this individual had been the last surviving member of the subspecies Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus.

Dry and to the point, the news was a stunning surprise to anyone who knew the background. It was a shocking example of what had been occurring in Indochina since I was last at Cat Tien in person, in 1998, to meet the wildlife biologists working there to rescue the animal from extinction.

It had been late in autumn monsoon season in the south of Vietnam that year, and the wet, humid weather had brought out armies of leeches. The wormlike creatures seemed to wait for us on the tips of nearly every jungle leaf in this young national park, where they would attach themselves to any warm-blooded creature that passed by.

Our little group constantly brushed leeches off our shirtsleeves and pants cuffs, only to discover telltale patches of blood on our socks after we stopped at a ranger’s hut to dry off. When we sat down to gratefully drink some of the green tea the ranger offered, a leech began crawling across the tabletop toward us. We watched the leech inchworm its body among the teacups until park overseer Gert Polet could stand it no more and flicked the leech away—only to discover two more leeches had arrived.

Outside, the rain was getting worse. In some places, two feet of water covered the main hiking trail. Even the local guides refused to go outdoors. We were ninety-four miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in an isolated area then known to few outsiders. The nearest landmark that appeared in any printed tour guide was the abandoned bunker complex at Cu Chi, now a tourist destination, located about halfway between where we were and the former capital of what had been South Vietnam.

The only way out of the park had turned into a trough of red mud. When I had ridden in earlier on the backseat of a motorcycle, the bike had sunk up to its wheel hubs in the stuff, which had been churned to the consistency of pudding by the street traffic at busy intersections. Even getting back to the nearest village was now questionable, since the Dong Nai River on the park’s border was so high and turbulent that the ferry—actually a landing craft left over from the last war—had stopped operating.

It was a miserable situation, made worse as I was at the time still recovering from a weeklong encounter with a tropical illness picked up near Hue in the center of the country. (Coming down with amebic dysentery in the hill country seemed to be almost a rite of passage. I could only be thankful that it was not malaria; one researcher told me he had caught malaria sixteen times while in Indochina. I could now really appreciate what Groves had said about disease acting to keep outsiders away.) I was still shaky, and the constant, unrelenting monsoon rain only worsened the mood.

Despite the conditions, Phil Benstead and his girlfriend, Charlotte, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, had broad smiles on their faces. Here to survey Vietnam’s birdlife, they’d seen an enormous variety of winged creatures living in the second-growth forest of this former Viet Cong staging area.

“We identified a hundred and twenty different species yesterday, including edible-nest swiftlets. We even saw a gray-faced tit-babbler,” said Phil in his proper English accent as he lit up a cigar to celebrate. He and Charlotte then discussed plans to look for owls in the jungle by flashlight that evening. I had to admire their indomitable cheer and pluck.

After they departed, I asked Polet whether he was concerned about the pair going out at night. Polet, then an adviser on park management at Cat Tien for the World Wildlife Fund, replied that he only became really anxious when people started poking around the dense thickets of young bamboo and rattan that had sprung up in place of the original old-growth forest. The thick tangle made it hard to see what was underfoot.

“Parts of the park still have unexploded bombs and land mine,” the lanky blond, blue-eyed Polet explained, with a trace of his native Holland in his speech. “Whenever I send teams out there to do biological surveys, I just hope everyone gets back.”

Leeches, land mines, and disease were just part of the reason that so much of Indochina’s wildlife had remained undetected for so long. Warfare, mosquitoes, impassable terrain, and improbable quirks of fate had conspired to keep Vietnam’s jungle creatures unknown to the modern world. Isolation—together with resiliency and luck—had enabled the country’s wildlife to remain alive and undiscovered. But after suffering through decades of war, embargoes, and currency controls, Vietnam was now starting to open up more to outsiders, making one of the world’s ecological hot spots accessible to researchers.

Much of the interest in the particular hot spot known as Cat Tien was due to a large, irritable, deceptively clumsy-looking animal. In 1988, a solitary rhinoceros had been killed near here; further research established that it was genetically related to the Javan rhinoceros, one of the most endangered mammals in the world. Before that discovery, the Javan rhino—which once ranged as far as India—was thought to be extinct on the Asian mainland and to have dwindled to fewer than sixty animals, all confined to a single preserve in the western part of the island of Java. A 1998 study of footprints suggested that possibly a dozen or more rhinoceroses still lurked in the northern reaches of Cat Tien, and zoologists seemed giddy at the thought. Investigators examined rhinoceros dung, made plaster casts of rhino tracks, and snapped photographs with automated cameras in an effort to determine what steps should be taken to preserve the species.

Some thought there was a chance to rebuild the rhino population in Vietnam, a goal that had some precedent. The population of Indian rhinos had been down to as few as twenty individuals before recovering to about five hundred. Similarly, at the end of the nineteenth century, there were only twenty or forty southern white rhinos in Africa; their population has since rebounded to more than eight thousand individuals.

But Polet was pessimistic. He noted that what Vietnamese rhinos his rangers had found were showing signs of stress and poor diet. The animals were physically smaller than their kin elsewhere, possibly due to the bamboo and rattan having crowded out the animals’ usual fodder of small trees, shrubs, and grass. The size of the rhino sanctuary was still small for such a wide-roving animal, the nearby human population was expanding rapidly, much of the forest was illegally being cut down for fuel, and he suspected that the Javan rhinos’ numbers were actually closer to five or seven individuals than to twelve. As it later turned out, he was right about the rhinos’ chances, although no one then knew how desperate the situation was.

Upon hearing the news of the loss of the last wild Javan rhino in Vietnam in 2011, the chairman of the Asian Rhino Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

(IUCN), Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, was to tell the BBC that the animal’s passing was “definitely a blow” to the survival of all Javan rhinos everywhere.

Others were blunter. Alan Rabinowitz, a zoologist at the Bronx Zoo once described by Time magazine as “the Indiana Jones of wildlife protection,” called the demise of the last Vietnamese specimens “the dumbest thing.” He said that a captive breeding program would have been the best way to go.

Rabinowitz said, “The last population of Javan Rhinos in Indochina is no way as strong and healthy now that that subspecies population in Vietnam has gone. They should not have let that last one or two Javan Rhinos stay out there. It was stupidity, pure stupidity.”

Equally upset at the news was noted zoologist George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Schaller has spent six decades trotting the globe to protect wildlife—including species as diverse as mountain gorillas, giant pandas, tigers, Serengeti lions, snow leopards, and Tibetan tigers—and he had personally been in Vietnam to help survey the populations of Javan rhinos and kouprey in the early ’90s, spending months on end in the Indochina jungle. (When Schaller did fieldwork in Tibet, he was accompanied by a youngish Peter Matthiessen, who went on to write a literary classic about the experience, The Snow Leopard. George Schaller is the “GS” referred to throughout that book.) Now, a little more than two decades later, the Javan rhino was gone forever from Vietnam, a victim of greed and a rapacious black market. “There’s tens of thousands of dollars in a single horn,” Schaller lamented. “Consequently, rhino poaching is like the drug trade.” One gram of rhino horn sells for as much as $133, or double the price of gold. Given the size of most rhino horns, that translates to an average of about $250,000 per horn.

The extinction of this animal was all the more disturbing because this one subspecies of rhino had been the justification behind creating the entire 270-square-mile national park in the first place. (Now that it has been up and running for close to twenty years, this well-established reserve is likely to remain. But nothing can be taken for granted; even the oldest park in Vietnam was cut in two to accommodate a new superhighway a few years ago.) As a champion example of what zoologists call “charismatic megafauna,” the Javan rhino had attracted huge amounts of attention, support, and money. Consequently, the species’ discovery had meant that one of the largest tropical rain forest lowlands in Vietnam had been getting more comprehensive, all-embracing protection. In order to protect rhino habitat, three smaller, widely spaced, fractured pieces of lowland forest had been joined together to form Cat Tien National Park.

Though composed of land that had been repeatedly sprayed with Agent Orange by American forces during the war, with large swaths of any remaining old-growth forest heavily logged afterward, the new preserve had proven to be home to hundreds of plant species, 120 kinds of birds, and several other large mammals, including the elephant, the sun bear, the buffalo-like gaur, and about forty others on the IUCN’s “Red List” of endangered species.

But of them all, the Javan rhino had been the star, as closely identified with Cat Tien National Park as the grizzly bear is with Yellowstone. “Big, beautiful animals draw public attention,” observed Schaller. “They arouse emotion, and people will work hard to protect them. Whereas it’s difficult to arouse people to protect leeches, mosquitoes, and so forth—although they may be just as important to the overall ecosystem, or even more so. . . . Is a tick more ecologically important than a tiger? Ecologically speaking, we just don’t know.”

The reality, Schaller explained, is that while he and other zoologists can do scientific research about all the different species and their web of interrelationships to urge the establishment of a national park, conservation often boils down to politics and emotions. People can relate more easily to any kind of large animal; there was a different energy to a place where big wild creatures roamed, and a sense of wilderness that came with the presence of a rhino that cannot be re-created digitally. There was something to being in the forest and knowing that you were not the biggest animal there. It sent a shiver down the neck.

In addition, there was a bonus to protecting the most glamorous animals. “If you have an appealing animal like a rhino or panda or tiger—and they need a fair amount of space—then when you do protect a good population of them in their natural habitats, you automatically protect hundreds or thousands of other animals and plants as well,” Schaller stated.

Rabinowitz described such animals as “apex species,” saying that by saving the most appealing animals and the land they migrate over, ecologists could also save the less noticeable creatures associated with them. This meant that by publicly focusing an enormous, concentrated effort on one species, they could save a whole stable, rich environment with a cascade of other life-forms in the bargain.

In this tapestry of protected animal and plant life, Vietnam’s Javan rhinos were the “apex species.” As the primary focus of all the attention, they simply should not have disappeared.


Reprinted from GOLD RUSH IN THE JUNGLE Copyright © 2013 by Dan Drollette, Jr. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

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