The Last Rhinoceros

The Last Rhinoceros

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

By Dan Drollette, Jr.
Published: 04/16/2013

"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.

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