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SOS Rhino : In the News : Vietnam's shy rhinos could disappear forever

Vietnam's shy rhinos could disappear forever

  By Didier Lauras
Hanoi - No-one knows how many Java rhinoceroses remain in southern Vietnam. It could be six or seven, perhaps even eight.

However many there are, they are the last of a sub-species that is threatened with extinction and is rarely seen by humans.

At the end of June the World Wildlife Fund wound up a six-year programme to protect the shy animals in Vietnam's southern Cat Tien National Park.

'They are the last few individuals in the world of this sub-species'

The rhinos, known scientifically as Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus, are a slightly smaller sub-species of the 40 to 60 Java rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus sondaicus) that live on Indonesia's Java island.

"They are the last few individuals in the world of this sub-species," said Gert Polet, the WWF project's chief technical advisor.

Until 15 years ago, it was widely thought the Vietnam rhinos were already extinct.

After facing French hunters during the colonial times, the animals saw their habitat significantly reduced and disturbed by the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975, and during which vast swathes of forest were destroyed.

Some Vietnamese scientists believed however the shy animals may still be around after accounts from villagers in the area, WWF conservation biologist David Murphy said.

"But the rest of the world, the big scientific community around the world, thought that it was extinct," Murphy said.

A study at the end of the 1980s confirmed that the villagers had been correct: there were still a few rhinos in the area.

In 1999 the WWF launched its programme to save them with the assistance of the Vietnam government, the World Conservation Union and the International Rhino Foundation.

They spent $6,5-million on the Cat Tien park, with the project also covering conservation of the area, promotion of tourism, education and security for the animals.

About $300 000 was spent on the rhinoceroses only, Polet said.

The experts had to be patient: far from being the stereotypically aggressive rhino ready to charge at any intruder, these one-horned creatures are shy and flee at the slightest disturbance.

The first known photograph of one of them was only taken in 1999.

The conservationists working on the project had to content themselves most of the time with tracking the animals' spoor. And the only information currently available about the group is that there is at least one female and no young.

The WWF was able to guess the number of the animals in the park from DNA analysis of their droppings, carried out by an American laboratory.

But it is still not certain how many exist. "The only thing we're sure of is that they are not enough," Polet said.

While winding down the project, the WWF has appealed to donors to maintain interest in the species.

The rhinos appear to be safe from poachers, but their habitat is being encroached on by farmers looking for new land. They are easily upset by any disturbance and this probably accounts for their lack of reproduction.

"It is a terrible situation. Rhinos can live maybe 40 years. The last reproduction was in 1997. We might have 10 years, maximum 20 left," said Polet.

The WWF has bought land for the animals to protect them from the farmers around Cat Tien park and hope the authorities will keep doing so in the years to come.

"The key thing for the future is to really work into securing that habitat and reducing disturbance," said Murphy.

In Hanoi the authorities promise they will not abandon the Java rhinoceros.

"We want to pursue research as well as preservation activities with competent international agencies," said Nguyen Xuan Dang from the Institute of Ecology and Biological resources.

And in time, even if the process is slow, sensitive and complicated, man might have to move over for the animal.

"We are thinking about moving four or five villages before 2010," he said.

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