During its brutal war with the USA, substantial forest areas of Vietnam were sprayed with defoliant and herbicidal chemicals, enforcing a systematic, environmental catastrophe on the country. That rhinos still existed in Vietnam’s forests was barely to be believed until, in 1999, camera images of the majestic beast confirmed its existence. Zoological studies at the time estimated a tiny population, critically endangered, of between seven to eight individuals. Instead of robust protection and intensive management however, in the space of a little over two decades, the species has been driven into extinction.
Recent testing has confirmed that an individual rhino found in 2010, shot in its leg and with its horn removed, was the last Javan rhinoceros of Vietnam. Gravely, the international trade in rhino horns has transformed the animals into indices of real and spectacular economic worth.
A report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has singled out the Asian market in traditional medicines as a key driving mechanism. The increased demand in animal parts, notably from China and Vietnam, has placed a huge stress on already endangered animals. Touted as a cure for ailments ranging from nervous exhaustion, to an antidote for poisons, and even as a cure for cancer, the trade in rhino horns has significantly altered the dynamics of the wildlife trade.
A study conducted by the NGO Traffic, monitoring the illegal trade in wildlife, has pointed towards a rapidly expanding middle and upper class in parts of Asia, where the acquisition of animal parts is a visible symbol of status and wealth. Disturbingly, in the case of the Vietnamese rhino, this phenomenon has occasioned its total disappearance.
The commoditisation of animal parts has assumed significant market potential, its value exponentially increasing with its rarity. Driven by an insatiable demand, animal parts are traded as items for eager consumers, disseminated across sophisticated and substantial illegal networks. Rhino horns have reportedly been sold for up to $80,000 per kg, far surpassing the value of precious metals such as gold. The cruel irony at the heart of this trade is that rhino horn is largely composed of keratin, a substance that can be found in human nails and hair; its purported medicinal properties are entirely unsubstantiated.
As its perceived value has surged, organised criminal networks are competing for the remaining rhino horns, exacting a terrible toll on rhino populations. A report from the Humane Society International has highlighted a sinister development in the trade. To avoid detection, poachers are utilising silent tranquiliser guns, and proceeding to saw off the rhino’s horn as it is still alive, ‘an almost daily occurrence’. If the animal should survive, blood loss and infection cause an immensely prolonged and painful death. In most instances, calves are left to starve.
Echoing issues faced by rhinos worldwide, an official report has described a catalogue of insults that rendered the Vietnamese rhino ‘unviable’; poached for their horns, restricted to ever-dwindling areas of habitat, and failed by the authorities that should have granted protection.
The Cat Tien National Park, where the last Vietnamese rhino population was in theory being protected, has seen rapid human population growth. Deforestation, combined with an expansion of agricultural settlements into ‘protected’ land, served to confine the rhino to increasingly restricted areas of land. Heavily used dirt tracks connecting the settlements helped not only to extend the physical reach of agricultural land, but also served to further limit the natural habitat range of the rhinos. Disastrously, these tracks cut through routes to water sources, significantly reducing vital access to water during dry seasons.
Perhaps more alarmingly, the authorities and park rangers charged with law enforcement and protection of the vulnerable population, overwhelmingly failed. As early as 2004 concerns were raised regarding the ineffective protection policy in the National Park. However, far from improving, it is now known that patrolling levels continued to decline in subsequent years, with no accountability. A report by the WWF concluded that patrols were not achieving sufficient coverage and were, in any case, not carried out ‘for the minimum time stipulated, or even at all in some months’.
The Vietnamese rhino has gone, and just last week, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature updated the status of other rhino subspecies on its ‘red list’. It makes troubling reading: the Black Rhino of Western Africa has officially been declared extinct; the White Rhino of Central Africa as well as the Northern White Rhino are listed as possibly extinct; and the Javan Rhino, wiped out in Vietnam, and now confined to a single population of 40 or so individuals in a small area of Indonesia, is described as ‘making its last stand’.
It is often commented that we are reaching a ‘watershed’ moment in our treatment of animals. In reality, that moment has long passed. Of the five rhinoceros species, four are threatened with extinction. The war against the rhino is relentless and incomprehensible. How such beautiful creatures, that have roamed the Earth for 50 million years, can disappear in a mere 20, will ultimately remain a legacy that says far more about our species, than that of the rhino.
Photo Credits: Image from http://dennis.inkwall.com/
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