Rhino's gone. Who's next?

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If the current state of zero accountability for wildlife protection continues, other species will follow the rhino to extinction


Participants watch projected images including of smuggled rhino horns (R) seized during a press conference on the launch of a rhino population survey report in Vietnam in Hanoi on October 25. A critically endangered species of rhino has been poached to extinction in Vietnam, wildlife groups said after the country's last Javan rhino was found dead with its horn hacked off.

In April 2010, when participants in a wildlife workshop in Cat Tien National Park were out of their rooms, money collected to support the workshop was stolen from the organizers' room.

This was reported to the park director who was shocked and surprised and claimed it had never happened before, according to an international participant whose money was also pilfered.

"However, discussions with other people based in the park suggested that this was not an isolated incident by any means, apparently organized theft was a common everyday occurrence," said the participant, requesting anonymity.

"Threats to involve the police resulted in half of the stolen money being returned, although where this money came from was unclear. There was a promise of follow-up on this matter from the park, which never occurred."

Later that month, Cat Tien's last rhino was found dead, shot through the leg with its horn hacked off. It had been dead for a month or so.

While a majority of participants involved dismissed speculation that the loss of the rhino was some form of divine retribution on the park, which lost its most famous occupant, for these premeditated thefts, they did ask the same question: Were these events related? 

The answer has remained elusive.

But "what is certainly true is that park management failed to properly conduct enforcement activities which are part of their mandate, and as a result the last rhino slipped away," the wildlife expert said.

The endangered Javan rhinoceros found dead in Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park last year was the country's last of its kind,  the WWF said in a report released Tuesday (October 25).

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The WWF and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) pronounced the Javan rhinoceros extinct in Vietnam after 22 dung samples in a October 2009 to February 5, 2010 survey at Cat Tien National Park were confirmed to have been from the same animal.

No sightings, footprints or dung from live rhinos have been discovered since April 2010, the 44-page report said.

"This is the most significant finding of the report," said Nick Cox of WWF's species program in the Greater Mekong. "For many this is still a shock that a species like this is now confirmed to be extinct in Vietnam."

The Javan rhinoceros is now believed to be confined to one population, of less than 50 individuals, in a small national park in Indonesia. They are the last known living members of the species, with none in captivity.

The Javan rhino was believed to be extinct from mainland Asia until 1988 when an individual was hunted from the Cat Tien area, leading to the discovery of a small population.

From the mid-1990s, a number of organizations were involved in efforts to conserve the remaining Javan rhino population in Cat Tien, but conservationists have blamed land conversion and a rising local population for threatening the animal's habitat, which has been  cut in half since 1988 to about 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares) today.

Widespread poaching and weak park management and patrols have also exacerbated the decline of the endangered species, they added.

"It's hardly surprising the horn was missing from the last rhino as Vietnam is the pre-eminent market destination for illegally sourced rhino horns," said Tom Milliken, a rhino expert at the international wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC. 

"It's tragic that the Javan rhino has been wiped out in Vietnam by the same forces that are driving rhino poaching in Africa."

In South Africa, which is the prime source country for rhino horns, latest official figures show 324 rhinos have been poached to date. But "that was a couple of weeks old, and the total will certainly be higher now," said Richard Thomas, a TRAFFIC spokesman.

 "To put this in context, last year was a record at 333 rhinos poached in the country: this figure is certain to be exceeded in 2011, and is very likely to top 400," Thomas said.

Demand for rhino horn has soared in recent years among Vietnamese and Chinese who are willing to pay through the nose for one of the most-sought products falsely believed to be able to cure an array of ailments including cancer. Horns can now fetch up to around $100,000 per kilogram, the WWF report said.

"˜The buck never stops'

From 1998 to 2004 WWF invested $6.3 million in the park, with up to $600,000 earmarked for rhino conservation work.

"Perhaps this case should be a lesson to all of us that funding alone by no means assures the survival of wildlife," said Douglas Hendrie, the American technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam, the country's largest environmental NGO.

"So what lessons should have been learnt? That's simple really that current protected area management is insufficient to safeguard a future for endangered wildlife in Vietnam," said Scott Roberton, Vietnam representative of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Conservationists in the field said that it would be tough to identify those who would accept responsibility for Vietnam's rhino extinction.

"As far as conservation is concerned, in Vietnam the buck never stops with anyone," said Jake Brunner, program coordinator for Vietnam with the global environment network International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"It's an accountability-free system."

Tran Van Thanh, the Cat Tien director, said government policies and actions and the social awareness of protecting critically endangered wildlife needed a sea change.

Back from a national workshop chaired by Agriculture Minister Cao Duc Phat in the Central Highlands last weekend, Thanh said he was extremely disappointed to learn that the meeting did not provide any space for wildlife conservation.

"Even the insiders disregard the importance of protecting wildlife. How can we expect the entire society to join forces?" Thanh said.

Thanh recalled that just a step outside the workshop avenue in the Central Highlands, an array of wildlife restaurants stood ready to cater to every need of customers.

"When everybody, including high-ranking officials, still thirst for wildlife, rhino horns, tiger bone or bear bile, any government rhetoric on wildlife protection would just remain on paper."

A Buddha needed

The WWF report also said Vietnam is on the verge of an "extinction crisis" with several other species - including the saola and the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey - threatened by deforestation, widespread poaching and a "largely uncontrolled" illegal wildlife trade.

Thanh, the Cat Tien director, said he wouldn't mind accepting the blame for the rhino loss, but stressed that real government action was needed to stop the extinction of other endangered species in the park.

Located just 160 kilometers northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, Cat Tien Park is home to around 1,700 precious plants, including those in the large genus of Dalbergia, and more than 700 species of animals and birds, several of which are endangered. 

But "we just cannot stop around 200,000 people living near the park from hunting exotic animals," said Thanh, who heads a 130-ranger force tasked with patrolling a 72,000-hectare area.

Thanh didn't deny that his people were doing a bad job or even connived with outsiders to log the forest or hunt wild animals inside the park.

"But overall, we are facing an uphill task that perhaps only the Buddha can do."

Back from the Central Highlands, Thanh has been busy assigning his staff to new forest patrols in the park next month. Each of them, who gets roughly VND3 million per month, will have to be on duty for 22 days in a row.

No motorbike is provided. They all have to walk and stay in the forests during those days on their own.

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