WWF may have tracked dead rhino before it was killed

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Vietnam world's largest consumer of rhino horn; changes needed at top levels to save species, says WWF

Rangers destroy a poacher camp at which the campfire was still burning when they arrived. The WWF found numerous well established poacher camps during the research, one of them near where some rhino dung had been found. (
Photo courtesy of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature)

The Javan Rhino whose skeleton was found recently in Cat Tien National Park in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong, may have been the same animal that the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) field workers were tracking for a conservation project, before it died possibly at the hands of poachers.

"It is quite possible that the dead rhino was the one being documented by the field workers, Julianne Becker, WWF Vietnam communication manager, said on May 17.

In a grim statement she added, "The WWF's official line is we don't know how many, if any, rhinos are left in the park.

Forensic tests show the time of rhino's death in January around Tet, which coincides with the time when the field workers stopped finding fresh evidence of rhinos, Becker said.

Becker said the two field workers, WWF species officer Sarah Brook and her husband Simon Mahood, who had been carrying out a rhino dung tracking program in the park using specially trained dogs, had worked in the same area that the rhino's remains were found on April 29.

Brook and Mahood kept a blog that provides a chilling account of how much of a threat wildlife in the park is under from poaching.

"Hunters set snares to catch animals. These snares [about 10 snares are displayed in a photo] were removed on one day's survey in November. Even if not intended for the rhinos, these snares could mortally wound one, the blog said.

"On our last visit to the forest we found a large cable snare... positioned over a trail close to a popular rhino wallow, the blog continued.

Becker said 22 samples of rhino dung were collected during the six month project. The dung has been sent for DNA testing and the results would not be available for at least four months, she said.

The tests would show how many rhinos produced the dung.

Head of Science and International Relation Office at Cat Tien National Park, Nguyen Van Thanh, told Thanh Nien Weekly on May 18 that he did not agree that there was large scale poaching in the park.

He said that the cause of the rhino's death was still being investigated by police and that he believed there were still three to five rhinos left.

One blog entry posted online from Cat Tien National Park on April 25, four days before the rhino's bones were found, tells how close the researchers were to poachers who may have killed the rhino.

"In the last three months we found and destroyed a new hunting camp each time we visited one particular wallow, which the rhinos had been regularly using before the hunters moved in.

The research that aimed to provide valuable information to save the critically endangered animal started in October.

The blog also showed the effect human encroachment has had on wildlife, in Cat Tien through river dredging, cashew nut farming, fishing and tree felling for timber, honey, fruit and leaves.

Compelling blog

Brook and Mahood were uploading their findings regularly on Twitter, making it possible for 68 followers on the social media site to see the snares and fences that poachers use in almost real time.

"At times we would feel it was truly remarkable that any rhinos still remain here, the April 25 entry said.

"The results of the survey will be so important for determining how to truly conserve this unique animal, if indeed it is not already too late...

"Along some rivers we found a hunting and fishing camp every 500 meters..., this fire was still smoking [a picture showed a camp with embers still aflame], the blog said.

There was no evidence of the rhino being snared or struggled to death due to hunting, however, there was evidence the horn had been removed, the WWF said in a statement released last week.

Therefore, it is suspected that the rhino was killed by poachers, it added. WWF's tests have shown the rhino wasn't snared.

The blog said on one day they removed over 100 snares from a trapping line on a ridge.

Big business

Becker said, "When you see evidence of huge numbers of snares, it is not traditional, but large scale organized hunting.

"When you see it on that scale it is for the trade.

She said wildlife traders go into villages in Vietnam and place orders for particular species.

She said rhino horn fetches US$40,000 a kilo in the end deal on the black market, adding that the Cat Tien rhino's horn would fetch a lot more because it was smaller and believed to be more potent.

At this time Vietnam is the highest consumer of rhino horn in the world, she said.

The blog describes one of the problems for conservation efforts is that poachers can easily avoid authorities or researchers in the forests because the rangers' movements are widely known and they don't patrol every day.

To save Vietnam's natural heritage, the field research showed patrols need to be stepped up and done more secretively.

"Rangers responsible for protecting this part of the national park only patrol for up to five days in each month. In the part of the park where rhinos definitely persist, the Asian Rhino Project and the WWF fund an additional five days of patrol effort each month, to reduce the risk to the rhinos. Although we have found snares in the rhino area, the numbers of snares there were much lower than in the area where we have just been, the blog said.

Becker said the WWF began funding the extra patrols after Brook and Mahood reported the huge extent of poaching at the beginning of the project in October.

She said the death of one animal should not be such big news because it should never get to this point.

Big changes need to be made at top levels, she said.

"It's going to even more sad and horrible if we don't learn from this rhino's death.

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