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.