The last native rhino of Vietnam dead at Cát Tiên National Park in 2010 has pushed the subspecies of the Rhinoceros sondaicus one step further to the brink of extinction. On March 21, 2019, a male Javan rhino of the species died in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park, reducing the total number of this subspecies to 68 individuals worldwide.
Cát Tiên NP is one of the 5 largest national parks in Việt Nam, with diverse ecosystems spread over an area of 71.187,9 ha, so fauna and flora species are also rich and abundant. Cát Tiên National Park has up to 1.610 species of vascular plants, 79 species of reptiles, 41 species of amphibians, 348 species of birds, and 113 species of animals.
Numerous new species have been discovered in Cát Tiên such as the Cát Tiên bent-toed gecko (Cyrtodactylus cattienensis), or the ruby-eyed green pit viper (Trimeresurus rubeus),…. Furthermore, Cát Tiên is also one of the few protected areas that still have wild animals running in sights such as peacocks, red jungle fowls, deer, and some small carnivorous animals… Cát Tiên is still one of the rare places in Việt Nam where the gaurs of the Red Book can be seen and captured.
The area’s list of aquatic plants and animals includes 125 surface-dwelling species, 122 bottom-dwelling species, and 168 species of fish, leading to the gathering of many indigenous and migratory bird species.
Cát Tiên is currently a South Vietnamese lowland endemic bird ground, which has 63 important species of bird grounds. It can be said that the species present in Cát Tiên National Park account for more than one-third of the total number of bird species in Việt Nam, including endemic and precious species such as orange-necked partridge (Arborophila davidi), Germain’s peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron germaini), Siamese fireback (Lophura diardi), white-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), white-shouldered ibis (Pseudibis davisoni), white-winged Duck (Asarcornis scutulata), great hornbill (Buceros bicornis), wreathed hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus),…. That is not to mention migratory birds or species that only come to Cát Tiên during the breeding season such as garganey (Anas querquedula), pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus), grey-headed lapwing (Vanellus cinereus), oriental pratincole (Glareola maldivarum)…
In the past few decades, Vietnam’s wild animals have fallen sharply in both the species richness and the number of individuals in each species.
According to data from Vietnam’s Red Book (2007), Vietnam had 365 rare and endangered animals (EN) based on the IUCN’s assessment standards of species status in 1992, then in 2004 and 2007, this number was up to 407 and 418. The number of critically endangered wildlife species (CR) in 2007 was 116. The number of precious and rare species classified as endangered from 1996 to 2004 and 2007 also increased from 356 to 450 and 464 species, respectively.
This is a consequence of illegal hunting, habitat destruction, and illegal trade in many rare and vulnerable species of animals and plants over the years. According to another report by the World Bank, the MONRE, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) in 2005, Vietnam has about 700 wild species at risk of extinction at the national level, 300 species endangered at a global level and up to 45% of these were classified as critically endangered.
Like many other areas, Cát Tiên used to be devastated by war and contaminated with toxic chemicals. After the war, this was where the military stations were located and had been used for post-war reconstruction. Some communities of Ma and S’Tiêng people in this period still maintained the custom of deforestation for farming and hunting wild animals, making the number of wild animals in Nam Cát Tiên decline. The hunting and catching wild animals have been greatly reduced at present, due to more strictly protected forests and the communities’ relocation out of the NP core zone.
From the late 1990s to the beginning of 2000, the raising of wildlife animals for commercial exploitation out broke. Some “easy-to-raise, easy-to-sell” species have been hunted to near extinction in the wild. The sika deer (Cervus nippon) are only on farms.
After many years of being confined to farms and sucked of bile to exhaustion, bears are now only living in rescue centers or semi-wild conditions. In Cát Tiên, crocodiles were considered extinct in 1996. Five years later, in 2001, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in collaboration with Cát Tiên National Park implemented the first program to restore wild fresh-water crocodiles in Việt Nam and the world, releasing 30 individual crocodiles that have been DNA tested to ensure the purity to the Bàu Sấu area. Perhaps this is a vivid example of the almost unique success in the restoration of the species already extinct in the wild. Up to now, crocodiles have been well rehabilitated, the number of observable individuals has increased to nearly 300 large and small ones.
The last rhino of Vietnam
A few years after the last rhino’s death, the story about whether or not to sacrifice part of the Cát Tiên forest for the Đồng Nai 6 and 6A hydro-power projects used to heat up in 2013. The two hydro-power projects, proposed at a time of high energy demand, are expected to contribute to the State budget 322,7 billion VND in 40 years with the immediate price of more than 370 hectares of forest, of which 137 ha of the NP core zone, going to be destroyed.
Probably the lesson about the last Javan rhino and the saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) in Cát Tiên has alerted and contributed significantly to the competent authorities’ decision to stop the implementation of two hydro-power projects after many years of fierce controversy. Cát Tiên has become a rare example of a National Park “resistant” to the invasion of powerful private enterprises. The Bàu Sấu complex, mineral deposits and vegetation along the Bàu Sấu, Bàu Chim, Bàu Cá areas were retained, the Cát Tiên forests managed to avoid being divided… The habitats of many wildlife species were restored, maintaining the area’s biodiversity level.
As the current statistics of species in all forests of Việt Nam are so obsolete, in many places they are several decades old, it is difficult to provide scientific evidence and identify that the Cát Tiên forest biodiversity has gotten better or worse after the last rhino’s death. Resource allocation and statistical effort are limited and biodiversity monitoring is only focused on certain species. But one thing is certain that Cát Tiên forest is being restored and developed sustainably. Deep into more than 71.000 hectares currently under management, the species of primates, ungulates, small carnivores, pangolins are still alive and in need of protection. The Cát Tiên forest guards are always aware that their mission will not end but only get more difficult. The UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in May 2013 recommended that “Cát Tiên National Park needs to use internationally recognized conservation forms to manage forests more effectively against threats such as hydro-power development, quarrying, uncontrolled tourism and especially urgent actions against illegal wildlife trafficking and hunting – the cause of serious damage to the NP’s natural values”. The above recommendations are being directed by the Vietnam Administration of Forestry, the Forest Management Board, the local authorities and people to make efforts and cooperate for implementation.
At present, Cát Tiên National Park still retains the Javan rhino image on its logo, even though this species is extinct in Cát Tiên. The skeleton of the last Javan rhino still stands in the glass case. Though the rhino’s death has an impact on the general ecosystem of the Nam Cát Tiên forest area, the lesson it left is strong and convincing enough to promote efforts and dedication to forest conservation, for other wild species in the forest, for the people’s lives around the forest and the future generations.