The Last Rhinoceros
A new book delves into the race between preservation and destruction in Vietnam's magnificent wilderness.
The extinction of this animal was all the more disturbing because this one subspecies of rhino had been the justification behind creating the entire 270-square-mile national park in the first place. (Now that it has been up and running for close to twenty years, this well-established reserve is likely to remain. But nothing can be taken for granted; even the oldest park in Vietnam was cut in two to accommodate a new superhighway a few years ago.) As a champion example of what zoologists call "charismatic megafauna," the Javan rhino had attracted huge amounts of attention, support, and money. Consequently, the species' discovery had meant that one of the largest tropical rain forest lowlands in Vietnam had been getting more comprehensive, all-embracing protection. In order to protect rhino habitat, three smaller, widely spaced, fractured pieces of lowland forest had been joined together to form Cat Tien National Park.
Though composed of land that had been repeatedly sprayed with Agent Orange by American forces during the war, with large swaths of any remaining old-growth forest heavily logged afterward, the new preserve had proven to be home to hundreds of plant species, 120 kinds of birds, and several other large mammals, including the elephant, the sun bear, the buffalo-like gaur, and about forty others on the IUCN's "Red List" of endangered species.
But of them all, the Javan rhino had been the star, as closely identified with Cat Tien National Park as the grizzly bear is with Yellowstone. "Big, beautiful animals draw public attention," observed Schaller. "They arouse emotion, and people will work hard to protect them. Whereas it's difficult to arouse people to protect leeches, mosquitoes, and so forth--although they may be just as important to the overall ecosystem, or even more so. . . . Is a tick more ecologically important than a tiger? Ecologically speaking, we just don't know."
The reality, Schaller explained, is that while he and other zoologists can do scientific research about all the different species and their web of interrelationships to urge the establishment of a national park, conservation often boils down to politics and emotions. People can relate more easily to any kind of large animal; there was a different energy to a place where big wild creatures roamed, and a sense of wilderness that came with the presence of a rhino that cannot be re-created digitally. There was something to being in the forest and knowing that you were not the biggest animal there. It sent a shiver down the neck.
In addition, there was a bonus to protecting the most glamorous animals. "If you have an appealing animal like a rhino or panda or tiger--and they need a fair amount of space--then when you do protect a good population of them in their natural habitats, you automatically protect hundreds or thousands of other animals and plants as well," Schaller stated.
Rabinowitz described such animals as "apex species," saying that by saving the most appealing animals and the land they migrate over, ecologists could also save the less noticeable creatures associated with them. This meant that by publicly focusing an enormous, concentrated effort on one species, they could save a whole stable, rich environment with a cascade of other life-forms in the bargain.
In this tapestry of protected animal and plant life, Vietnam's Javan rhinos were the "apex species." As the primary focus of all the attention, they simply should not have disappeared.
Reprinted from GOLD RUSH IN THE JUNGLE Copyright (c) 2013 by Dan Drollette, Jr. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.