Deep in the jungle where the borders of Vietnam meet those of Laos and Cambodia is a region known as "the lost world." Large mammals never seen before by Western science have popped up frequently in these mountains in the last decade, including a half-goat/half-ox, a deer that barks, and a close relative of the nearly extinct Javan rhino. In an age when scientists are excited by discovering a new kind of tube worm, the thought of finding and naming a new large terrestrial mammal is astonishing, and wildlife biologists from all over the world are flocking to this dangerous region. The result is a race between preservation and destruction.
Containing research gathered from famous biologists, conservationists, indigenous peoples, former POWs, ex-Viet Cong, and the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam since the war's end, Gold Rush in the Jungle goes deep into the valleys, hills, and hollows of Vietnam to explore the research, the international trade in endangered species, the lingering effects of Agent Orange, and the effort of a handful of biologists to save the world's rarest animals.
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Dawn in the Jungle
This region represents much more than the find of the year; it could be the find of the century.
—Colin Groves, taxonomist, Australian National University
It is daybreak in Ninh Binh province, seventy-four miles southwest of Hanoi, and the limestone mountains of Cuc Phuong—Vietnam’s first national park, founded in 1962 with the blessing of Ho Chi Minh himself—are just emerging from the mist.
Though it is only five a.m., lights can already be seen in the windows of the farmhouses just outside the park; the buildings’ traditional thatched roofs, combined with the adjacent neatly tilled rice paddies and abrupt nearby mountains, make the scene look as quiet and still as that on an ancient scroll.
Inside the park, however, the forest is full of sound, from the drone of mosquitoes to the maniacal racket of white-crested laughingthrushes. Loudest of all is a deep-throated “huuuu-huuuuuuu- huuuuuuuuuu-huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu” coming from the dense treetops. This is the “great call” of the gibbon, a long-armed, fruit-eating ape, which human listeners have sometimes compared to a mourning dove’s cry, managing to be beautiful while mixed with a sense of loss.
Unfortunately, it is a sound fast disappearing from Vietnam’s forests, at a pace that has accelerated noticeably over the past fif- teen years.
One of the few places where you can still hear what Jane Goodall once described as “one of the wonders of the primate world” is here, just inside the park boundary, at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center (EPRC). Consisting of a five-acre semiwild, enclosed area, the center’s roughly circular central compound lies inside a larger perimeter ringed by two outer fences; from above, the series of concentric circles would resemble a dartboard. And in the bull’s-eye are 150 specimens of the world’s rarest and most endangered animals, most of which would have been dead but for the efforts of Tilo Nadler (TEE-low NAD-ler)—a self-taught biologist who nevertheless went on to become what an eminent zoologist, Colin Groves, described as “the unsung hero of Indochina wildlife protection.”
There is much to be protected, because just beyond the park lie a series of limestone mountain ridges stretching north to south to form the calciferous spine of Indochina. Known to geographers by the lovely name of the Annamese Cordillera, this mountain range runs the entire length of the country and contains within its valleys, hills, sinkholes, karsts, and innumerable caves something that Oxford University zoologist John MacKinnon described as “the lost world”—home to strange, rare animals such as the Asiatic sun bear, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, and the clouded leopard.
But that’s not all. Since the early 1990s, many new, fantastic, large mammals never seen before by Western science have popped up here, especially in the parts where the borders of Vietnam meet those of Laos or Cambodia. Every week for the past ten years, an average of two new species of animal or plant have been found, all previously unknown to the outside world. A short list includes a half-goat/half-ox, a deer that barks, a creature that may be a missing link between domestic cattle and their wild forebears, and a close relative of the nearly extinct Javan rhino, to name but a few. A previously unknown, new species of the very rare leaf-eating monkey known as the langur once appeared, quite literally, on Nadler’s doorstep. Others are still being discovered and are part of what the peer-reviewed journal Science called “a renaissance in species discovery, not just of insects and microbes, but also of humans’ closest relatives, mammals.”
There are also tantalizing, persistent reports by local villagers of a fur-covered animal they call Nguoi Rung (NOW-rung), or “Forest Man,” which walks upright on two legs and is said to resemble a human. (The Nguoi Rung is most likely a myth, but no researcher I talked to wanted to rule it out completely, bearing in mind what happened with newly discovered species of previous eras. When mid–nineteenth century explorers first heard accounts of a “hairy man” in the mountains of interior Africa, experts discounted the reports as mere fables. Now we know these creatures as Rwanda’s “mountain gorillas.”)
How Vietnam’s animals came to populate this “lost world,” how they survived what locals call the American War, and how they managed to still remain undiscovered—how can no one notice a two-thousand-pound forest ox?—is a bit of a mystery. Whether these species will survive the peace is still being decided, and the outcome is very uncertain.
For as fast as these new creatures are being discovered and formally described, they are being wiped out. Already, the newly discovered Javan rhino is extinct in Vietnam, while the goatlike saola has seen its numbers plunge from the thousands to approximately two hundred. The forest ox, or kouprey, may already be gone as well.
The result is a race between the forces of preservation and destruction in this part of the tropics—the band of terrain where most of the world’s biodiversity is found. Researchers want to find and name the new species so they can take the creatures to rescue centers and captive breeding programs, and understand these animals’ places in the great fabric of life. Meanwhile, others want to slaughter the animals to satisfy the newfound taste for exotic game in upscale restaurants that has gone hand in hand with a booming Asian economy. Endangered animals—both newly discovered and previously known—are sought on many fronts: their heads go to trophy hunters, their still-beating hearts used for the making of “snake wine,” their horns for quack medicine, their brains for appetizers, their anal glands for the manufacture of some of the world’s most famous and expensive perfumes.
At times, it seems that everything is being sacrificed on the altar of pell-mell economic development, an attitude that caused Alan Rabinowitz, formerly a zoologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, to dub Vietnam “a miniature China on amphetamines.”
The situation presents a conundrum to wildlife biologists. On the one hand, they are shocked by the rapid decline of species; the number of Vietnam’s turtles lost each year to smugglers is measured by the ton. At the same time, wildlife biologists are thrilled just to find something new. In an era when it is big news to discover a new kind of “tube worm,” the thought of finding and naming a new, large terrestrial mammal is just short of mind-blowing. By 1812, noted French naturalist Georges Cuvier was already lamenting that all the big, four-legged creatures had been found, leaving nothing new to discover. In a phrase now gleefully repudiated by wildlife biologists, Cuvier wrote: “There is little hope of discovering new species of large quadrupeds.”
Consequently, if you’re a young wildlife biologist and you want to make a name for yourself, you hightail it to this part of South- east Asia.
However, this opportunity comes at great risk. Where scientists elsewhere worry about getting tenure, researchers here must dodge leftover land mines and winged antipersonnel “butterfly bombs” to do their field research. This is a place where the phrase “publish or perish” has a very literal meaning. Members of one expedition awoke to find tiger tracks circling their tents; their leader, Nate Thayer, said: “Our team’s plane crashed on the return, our security mutinied and threatened to kill us all, half the team thought they were going to die after we encountered armed Khmer Rouge, others collapsed from sheer exhaustion from having no idea what it took to walk thirty miles a day in the jungle with no water, some demanded nonexistent helicopter medevacs . . .”
Drug runners, timber smugglers, and their like abound, their numbers increasing the farther you get from Hanoi and the deeper you go into the mountainous border regions. If you do cross the line and enter the neighboring hills of Laos and Cambodia, you have entered an area with a reputation like that of America’s lawless old Wild West. In the late 1990s, the world’s only captive specimen of a type of barking deer lived here in the private menagerie of a local jungle warlord, his prize guarded by his personal army of mercenaries armed with Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifles. Thayer—himself a seasoned expatriate American who knows these parts well—simply described the whole region as “a very bad area, full of very bad people.”
But the pull of the new wildlife is too strong.
And academics are not the only ones rushing in. The jungle disease–resistant genes of a single forest ox could be worth billions of dollars to the world’s domestic cattle industry, says Noel Vietmeyer, a National Academy of Sciences expert on biological engineering.
The result can be thought of as a “biological gold rush,” simmering away largely unnoticed by the outside world, by expatriate Viet Khieu, and by many Vietnam urbanites.
Like all gold rushes, this one has attracted a motley cross-section of humanity: scientists, collectors, mercenaries, poachers, wildlife conservationists, local villagers, timber barons, smugglers, warlords, and reputed spies.
All nationalities seem to be represented. In addition to the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, there are British birdwatchers, American war veterans, Danish journalists, French businessmen, Dutch park managers, East German former communists, and Indian/ American scientists. There is also a smattering of those with no real fixed address—who in the bars of the newly refurbished colonial-era hotels of Ho Chi Minh City, née Saigon, have been overheard to refer to themselves, self-mockingly or not, as “expatriate scum.”
These groups are mixed in with the ethnic hill tribes such as the Bru, the T’ai, the Gie-Trieng, the Yao, and about fifty others. Though outsiders tend to lump all these different tribes together as the “Hmong,” the term more accurately refers to a single distinct ethnic group, say anthropologists. (The term “Montagnard” is a similar catchall, simply meaning “mountain people.”) Just one group, the Yao, make distinctions between Red Yao, Black Yao, and Flower Yao, the colorful names referring to the type of traditional headdress worn by the women of each ethnic group. Each seems to speak its own dialect.
Amid such a tangle of languages, nationalities, cultures, occupations, and motivations, to merely ask a question and get a straight answer about the possible sighting of a new species is a challenge. One experienced zoologist with sixty years of fieldwork experience under his belt, George Schaller, lamented of this region: “When I’d ask local villagers ‘Are there barking deer here?’ they’d say yes—but it turns out there’s four kinds of them. I wasn’t asking the right questions.”
Under these circumstances, for Nadler’s Endangered Primate Rescue Center to locate healthy, adult pairs of rare, newly discovered animals and then get them to mate and raise live young in captivity is nothing less than astonishing. Successfully breeding animals in confinement is considered to be the ultimate test of the skills of any deep-pocketed, resource-rich big-city zoo, let alone those of a small volunteer operation working in the hinterlands of a Third World country. What Tilo Nadler did with just one creature, a leaf-eater known as the Ha Tinh langur, was “unprecedented,” said Colin Groves, a renowned mammalogist and taxonomist at the Australian National University who is an expert on endangered primates. “The Ha Tinh langur has never been in captivity before. Tilo has chalked up quite an achievement.”
And Nadler’s EPRC has had similar results with the even rarer Delacour’s langurs, Cat Ba langurs, and many other species of leaf-eaters, while spawning similar rescue efforts among other species in Cuc Phuong National Park and the region as a whole.
For there is much wildlife rescue work going on in Vietnam these days. A short list of some of the many wildlife discovery and restoration projects in recent memory would have to include Gert and Ina Polet’s effort to save the country’s previously unknown Javan rhinos near Saigon, Jeb Barzen and Tran Triet’s work to bring back Eastern Sarus cranes on the Plain of Reeds, William Robichaud’s expeditions to find the saola in the hill country, and Bui Dang Phong and Tim McCormack’s work in saving the world’s rarest turtles, at least one of which lives—of all unlikely places—in the middle of downtown Hanoi.
To this list must be added earlier expeditions such as Charles Wharton’s agonizingly close near successes in catching a live kouprey in the early 1950s, or Vo Quy’s effort in the 1960s to make a complete inventory of all the bird life in the country—the first-ever such census, and conducted along a major weapons-supply route, in the middle of a war.
The list of creatures involved goes on and on, to include paddlefish, raccoon dogs, fishing cats, warty pigs, and “ferret-badgers,” plus innumerable other creatures strange to Western eyes. (Some of these animals, such as the ferret-badger, are so unusual that taxonomists are still sorting out where they fit in and what their proper names should be. They are so new to science that they cannot be found in field guides or textbooks or encyclopedias yet.)
But in the dawn of the twenty-first century, the one project that seems to stand out whenever an outsider penetrates the small community of wildlife rescuers is Tilo Nadler’s Endangered Primate Rescue Center. The EPRC is one of the oldest efforts in this country to actually rescue rare wild animals as opposed to strictly observing them, and it started in the early 1990s, placing it among one of the earliest peacetime restoration projects.
My curiosity had been piqued early and often by this effort. I had heard rave reviews of Nadler’s work from widely scattered researchers in many different disciplines in several different countries; the most colorful accolades came from mammalogist and taxonomist Colin Groves, when I visited his offices at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.
It was a memorable interview. Exotic souvenirs covered his office walls; we were surrounded by animal heads, maps, and photos of him posed with creatures in faraway lands. It felt like being on a movie set; one half expected to see a leather jacket and a bullwhip.
During the obligatory Australian teatime, Groves filled me in on the hottest developments in his field. He described a frenzied but little-publicized series of new biological discoveries going on in Vietnam’s jungles, where researchers had recently found some brand-new species of large, four-footed animals that did not easily fit any previously defined categories.
While the idea of all these new species was stunning, he said, even newer ones seemingly popped up every time someone installed a camera trap. What’s more, there were tantalizing hints—tracks, dung, bits of antler, leftovers in village cooking pots—of many more creatures yet to be formally discovered, named, and categorized. Capturing any one of them would make the career of an eager biology grad student.
Or a trophy hunter.
Groves said that Vietnam’s wildlife had managed to thrive and remain unseen by a series of remarkable twists of fate. By way of an example, he pulled out an old atlas of Indochina sandwiched between books on his office shelves that carried titles like Congo Journey and New Conquest of Central Asia. Drawn upon the yellowing map were the routes of the only major scientific expeditions to survey Vietnam’s wilderness in the twentieth century. Groves said that there were only two significant countrywide, all-encompassing forays, both in the late 1920s, toward the peak of the French colonial empire in Asia. That was the era of the great white hunter, when expeditions traveled by elephant back or sedan chair while accompanied by immense trains of hundreds of porters—expeditions whose very size restricted their mobility in the confined spaces of the mountainous jungle. Convoys of 250 porters were needed just to carry one week’s supplies to the hunting lodges in the popular big-game safari region of Dalat, in the subalpine hill country northeast of Saigon. A single party of a handful of Western tourists required fifty native porters—who were often unpaid. It’s little surprise that a surviving handbook from the era included such phrases as “How many coolies can this village provide?” and “Make a straight path, not a crooked one.” Or “I don’t want children, I need vigorous men.”
Tracing their imperial paths with his fingertip, Groves showed how both expeditions just missed the richest and most ecologically diverse regions, due to the poor roads, severe conditions, prolonged rainy seasons, and endemic tropical diseases. In the earliest days of colonization—the 1860s—European administrators, explorers, and military men suffered horrifying mortality rates; one doctor estimated that the average European only survived two years in Vietnam. In an era before science understood the connection between malaria and mosquitoes, medical practitioners were helpless: a Dr. Fontaine, who was the equivalent of the surgeon general for the entire colony of Indochina, himself died from tropical disease between the time he submitted a paper on the topic and the time it was published.
With new drugs, the mortality rate was reduced dramatically, but certain regions continued to remain unknown or largely forgotten. Groves lingered over one spot, adding: “This is where Tilo Nadler and the Endangered Primate Rescue Center are. He’s doing the most exciting work today to save rare animals.”
That was it; I had to go there. I traveled to Vietnam to meet Nadler and others for the first time in 1998. I was consumed by questions: Who were these renegade biologists? What was Nadler’s Endangered Primate Rescue Center doing that made it so successful? And if Nadler’s work was so wonderful, why had no one outside a small coterie of wildlife experts heard of it? What was happening in Vietnam? What would I find when I met them at their jungle field stations?
My first visit left me with more questions than it answered. I decided to return more than a decade later to try to answer them once and for all.
Table of ContentsAuthor’s Note
Prologue: Dawn in the Jungle
Chapter 1: A Peace More Dangerous Than War
Part One: 1998
Chapter 2: An American in Vietnam
Chapter 3: A Room at the “Hanoi Hilton”
Chapter 4: Roughing It in Rural Vietnam
Part Two: 2010 and Beyond
Chapter 5: A Grand Tour of the EPRC
Chapter 6: Vietnam’s “Lost World”
Chapter 7: At the Hands of the Demon Called “Science"
Chapter 8: A Biological Gold Rush in the Jungle
Chapter 9: The Kouprey—A Cautionary Tale
Chapter 10: Cobras Under the Kitchen Sink
Chapter 11: Surviving “The American War”—Agent Orange
Chapter 12: DMZ: The Thin Green Line
Chapter 13: Dragons Flying in Clouds 000
Chapter 14: Of Turtles and Second Chances
Chapter 15: Why the Rhino Went Extinct in Vietnam
Chapter 16: Vietnam’s Yeti: What Else Is Out There?
Chapter 17: Two Futures: Angkor Wat or Kauai?
Chapter 18: The Big Picture
Notes on Sources
Glossary: Who’s Who Among the Animals