Barking deer, unicorn-like creatures, and shy, forest-dwelling oxen weighing as much as a small car…
The bizarre menagerie reads like something out ofThe Lord of the Rings, yet each of these animals was either recently discovered or may still reside in Việt Nam’s forests.
Dan Drollette’s Gold Rush in the Jungle takes us to the front lines of a biological battleground where eight of the 10 large mammals discovered in the past two decades were found – and where those very same species may now be going extinct.
The discovery of such large, enigmatic creatures in a rapidly developing country like Việt Nam is astounding, and the gold rush narrative that Drollette weaves is masterfully done.
Yet the race to discover and defend the rarest of Việt Nam’s animals may well be over and the results are perhaps less promising than he portrays.
First, some background.
Drollette begins with a well-researched account of the decimation of Việt Nam’s jungles over the past half-century.
The trouble started during the Việt Nam war, when the US defoliated thousands of square kilometres of forest with the powerful herbicide Agent Orange.
And that was just the beginning.
Since the 1960s, Việt Nam has levelled more than half of its forests for development as its population has skyrocketed.
More recently, the country has become a regional centre for wildlife trafficking, with some 2700 tonnes of live animals and animal parts smuggled out each year.
Drollette argues, rightly, that the protracted war and subsequent isolation of the communist country actually sheltered Việt Nam’s wildlife until quite recently.
Landmines lingering decades after the departure of US troops kept people out of the forests, while strict trade embargoes stifled economic development.
When Việt Nam opened up to the world in the 1990s, its forests were relatively undisturbed, fuelling what the journal Science called “a renaissance in species discovery”.
Political changes that opened Việt Nam’s jungles to foreign scientists, however, also invited exploitation, creating what Drollette calls a “race between the forces of preservation and extinction”.
He argues that this race is not only continuing to this day but, depending on how it plays out, could serve as a model for other “closed” countries like Burma and Cuba that may soon open up in a similar way.
Intrigued by this Việt Nam model, I quizzed Alan Rabinowitz, a US conservation biologist who has spent decades looking for and saving rare species across vast swathes of south-east Asia – and who is head of Panthera, the world’s largest wild cat conservation organisation.
He has never worked in Việt Nam, however, because he says conservation efforts in the fast-developing country are already too late.
“If Việt Nam is a model, it’s a bad one,” says Rabinowitz.
“I’m not sure there is much they could save there any more.”
Tigers and elephants have effectively been extirpated from the country as the last remaining individuals cling to the ever-shrinking forested margins.
Việt Nam’s last rhinoceros remained cloistered in a national park until 2011, when it was found dead with its horn cut off by poachers.
And it’s not just large, iconic species that are disappearing.
The saola, a hooved mammal about the size of an antelope, was discovered in Việt Nam in 1992, the first new large mammal found anywhere in the world in the past half-century.
Drollette heralds the discovery as a leading example of the biological riches emerging from the country’s forests.
Yet this does not ring true to Rabinowitz.
The discovery was not based on observations of a live saola but rather on the horns of individuals which were found in hunters’ homes.
When Rabinowitz went to look for the species in the wild he bypassed Việt Nam entirely, travelling instead to neighbouring Laos.
“When we went to search for that animal’s habitat and the conservation work that has been done on that habitat, it’s been all on the Lao side where there is good habitat left and good potential for saving the species.”
To best conserve south-east Asia’s remaining wildlife, Rabinowitz says that conservationists are better off working in less developed countries such as Burma, Cambodia and Laos, and with developed countries with stronger environmental protection such as Thailand and Malaysia.
Rabinowitz spent more than a decade as a virtual lone voice for conservation in Burma, successfully lobbying the country’s military dictatorship to set aside large forested tracts for tigers and other endangered species.
He says conservation organisations need to engage with “closed” countries to establish protection before they open up, so that they can have a chance at conserving wildlife during periods of rapid development.
What makes the region as a whole so vital for conservation and a hotspot for biodiversity is, in part, its unique geography, Rabinowitz says.
Plants and animals from the foothills of the Himalayas to the north and the rainforests of the Indo-Malayan peninsula to the south converge in the deciduous forests of south-east Asia.
Some unique mountain ranges across the region create isolated pockets of species found nowhere else, and inaccessible terrain that helps fend off development.
Increasing development in the region, however, suggests a grim future for the region’s wildlife.
“It’s a real mixed bag in south-east Asia.
If I had to rate the region, I would say it’s headed for the worse,” warns Rabinowitz.
“We have lost some very special areas and species that are not coming back.
I think these countries will develop a lot more with the opportunities that are coming, and the environment will take a back seat.
On the other hand, there has been enough of a spotlight now on certain key areas, like the Western Forest Complex in Thailand, that they will survive.”
So, Drollette’s gold rush has, arguably, been and gone.
But wherever the truth lies, his book made for a cracking read.
Gold rush in the jungle: the race to discover and defend the rarest animals of Việt Nam’s “Lost World”
by Dan Drollette Jr
Source: New Scientist