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A typical scene outside Van Long Nature Preserve, not far from Cuc Phuong. The landscape is dominated by the huge, weirdly shaped, eroded limestone hills. Like many homes in the area, the house in the foreground has a fish pond in its front yard. Photo by Dan DrolletteA typical scene outside Van Long Nature Preserve, not far from Cuc Phuong. The landscape is dominated by the huge, weirdly shaped, eroded limestone hills. Like many homes in the area, the house in the foreground has a fish pond in its front yard. Photo by Dan Drollette
Vietnam's Lost World: Gold Rush in the Jungle

By Dan Drollette Jr

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.

Excerpt from the book

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-huuuuuuuhuuuuuuuuuu-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 fifteen years.

gold-rush-in-the-jungleOne 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.”

Limestone Mountain Ridges

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.”

Vietnam-map-copyThis map shows where a lot of wildlife has been found, in particular, Cuc Phuong National Park where the Endangered Primate Rescue Center is located.Image courtesy Patricia J. WynneThere 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.

Forest Ox

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 Southeast 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 . . .”

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette Jr is a writer, editor, and lecturer whose articles have appeared in such publications as Scientific American, International Wildlife, the Boston Globe, Natural History, Cosmos, Science, ABCNewsOnline, New Scientist, Newsday, and The Sciences. Recently, he earned awards from the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the "East Meets West" journalism conference at UC Berkeley.

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Tags: storySection: Alternatives,Animal Stories,Travel Books
Location: Asia, Vietnam
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