“It is painful that despite significant investment in the Vietnamese rhino population, conservation efforts failed to save this unique animal,” said WWF-Vietnam Country Director Tran Thi Minh Hien in a press release. “Vietnam has lost part of its natural heritage.”
In April 2010, locals came across the remains of a rhino in the bottom of a ravine near a shallow stream in Cat Tien National Park, 150km north of Ho Chi Minh City. Postmortem analysis uncovered a fully-jacketed metal round — most likely from an AK-47 or CKC rifle — embedded in the rhino’s left forelimb. The bullet did not immediately kill the animal, but experts concluded that the resulting impairment of locomotion and/or possible infection are ultimately responsible for the animal’s death. The animal’s horn had been taken.
“Reintroduction of the rhinoceros to Vietnam is not economically or practically feasible,” says the WWF’s Christy Williams. “It is gone forever.”
While the Javan Rhino was previously believed to be extinct in mainland Southeast Asia, a small population was rediscovered in Vietnam in the late 1980s. Between 10 and 15 individuals were believed to exist, but later surveys stated that there were likely five to eight living rhinos in the area. As of 2010, only one individual remained.
But after millions of dollars had been poured into the project, the circumstances surrounding the animal’s death and likely sale of the horn on the illicit traditional medicine market was a devastating blow.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ programme coordinator Jake Brunner describes the event as a “watershed” among the conservationist community. “[It] triggered an exodus of international talent from Vietnam,” he says.
“I think that what happened with the rhino is a very, very costly wake up call,” says People Resources and Conservation Foundation’s Fernando Potess, who has been working in conservation in Vietnam since the late 1990s. “The problem is, there have been many wake up calls before that have not actually woken people up.”