On April 29, 2010, the Gia Vien ranger station received a disturbing call. Local people foraging in Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park had stumbled upon the weathered body of a large beast.
Unfortunately, the perpetrator—who broke at least three laws in Vietnam—will probably get away with his crime. The situation in Vietnam for wildlife seems likely to get worse before it gets better.
To investigate, the rangers headed into the forest, where they found the skeleton lying on a pile of crumpled bamboo at the bottom of a steep ravine. It’s severed skull rested a few meters away, a jagged hollow carved out where a horn once stood. They had found the remains of Vietnam’s last Javan rhino.
“The Javan rhino is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Sarah Brook, a flagship species officer for Flora and Fauna International Cambodia, and lead author of a recently published Biological Conservation paper describing the rhino’s fate. “Many other species are declining rapidly in Vietnam and remain in only fragments of their former ranges with very small populations,” she said.
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Across Vietnam, China and other Southeast Asian countries, forests are emptying of their animals. The poaching crisis has reached epidemic proportions as Vietnam and its neighbors’ burgeoning middle classes gain wealth and fuel demand for rare wildlife products for use in traditional Chinese medicine or as restaurant delicacies.
In the case of the last Javan rhino, its missing horn indicates that it likely wound up as an ingredient in a medicinal tonic, either to treat cancer, serve as a hangover cure or tame a fever. Though rhino horns currently fetch the equivalent price of their weight in gold on the Vietnamese and Chinese blackmarkets, scientists have found no medicinal value in the largely keratin-composed horns, or the same substance found in fingernails and hair.
Despite no evidence of the horns’ efficacy, an insatiable demand still exists for rhino horn amidst traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, and it’s this demand that largely drove the Javan rhino to extinction in Vietnam. This small, unique rhino species once roamed throughout the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Today, however, it ranks as one of the most threatened large mammals in the world. With its confirmed extirpation from Vietnam, conservationists believe the critically endangered rhinos now only exist in an isolated population in Indonesia, hovering at a minimum of 35 individuals.
“Javan rhinos in Indonesia are faring better thanks to stronger protection and park management,” Brook said. “But the demand for rhinoceros horn is so high that no rhino populations or species are exempt from the risk of poaching.”
When Brook and colleagues from the World Wildlife Fund arrived on the scene at Cat Tien National Park, the rangers had already gathered up the rhino’s bones and toted them back to the park headquarters. Though some soft tissue reportedly remained when the rangers found the skeleton, they told Brook they wound up destroying that evidence because it reeked of decomposition.
Moreover, the bones were not stored under controlled conditions and the park personnel didn’t think to record the temperature or humidity at the site of the crime, or to collect insects and larvae that could have helped establish an estimated time of death. “These circumstances are far from ideal for a precise pathological assessment of when the rhinoceros died,” Brook and her colleagues wrote in a separate report.
Still, they did find a bullet fragment lodged in the animals’ left elbow joint that narrowed down the investigation. The rhino likely did not die on the spot from its wound, but perhaps succumbed to a slow demise from septicemia, or else fell over and could not get up again due to its wound and crushing body weight. “The exact cause of death is unknown, but it is very likely that the last rhino died as a result of being shot in the leg,” Brook said.
Subsequent genetic analysis confirmed the team’s fears: the rhino, an approximately 15- to 25-year-old female, was the last of her kind in Vietnam. The dead rhino’s microsatellite DNA matched with comprehensive surveys of rhino dung conducted in 2009 and 2010, which identified only a single rhino remaining in the national park. “The survey and genetic analysis confirmed that there was only one individual left in Vietnam, and this was the one that was found dead,” Brook said.
The researchers have no leads on who might be responsible for the crime, or whether the same hunter who shot the animal subsequently tracked it in order to remove the horn, or whether an opportunistic local stumbled upon the dead rhino’s body in the forest and then removed its horn.
Unfortunately, the perpetrator—who broke at least three laws in Vietnam—will probably get away with his crime. The situation in Vietnam for wildlife seems likely to get worse before it gets better. Protected areas within the country are underfunded and understaffed, Brook said, while poaching runs rampant. “More importantly,” she pointed out, “there is little accountability—and therefore motivation—of protected area managers and staff in Vietnam to actually protect the parks and their wildlife.”
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Rachel Nuwer is a science journalist writing for venues such as the New York Times, Scientific American, Smithsonian and Audubon Magazine, among others. She lives in Brooklyn. Rachelnuwer.com | @rachelnuwer | Takepart.com