Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Why extinctions should worry us as a species

A A A

You probably missed it on the news, three weeks ago, the item about the Vietnamese rhinoceros going extinct; it didn't make a lot of noise. The fact that an animal which had roamed the jungles of Vietnam for millions of years had now disappeared from the Earth for ever didn't hit the front pages, or the television headlines: there were far more pressing concerns for the world. A rhino in Vietnam? So what? Who's bothered?

But I've been thinking about it ever since. I find the story gripping. Nobody knew there were any rhinos at all in Vietnam, or in mainland Indo-China, for that matter, until just over 20 years ago, when hunters shot one in the dense forests of the Cat Tien National Park about a hundred miles north of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon as was). Imagine. You suddenly realise your country's got rhinos. You had no idea. It's like finding wolves surviving in the Scottish Highlands.

It turned out to be a subspecies of the Javan rhinoceros, itself one of the world's rarest animals, and its discovery was one of the first elements of what you might call Vietnam's zoological peace dividend. For nearly 40 years, remember, the country was continually at war, with the Vietnamese fighting first the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans, and its tropical forests were off-limits to all but the combatants; but after hostilities finished, in 1975, the jungles slowly began to give up their secrets, which included a whole series of large mammals previously unknown to science.

The Vietnamese rhino was the first of these; and for more than a decade, it was known only from the skin the hunters had kept, and then from footprints and droppings. But in 1999, it was at last photographed in a camera trap, by an automatic pre-positioned camera which captured an unforgettable image, an image to make you shiver with excitement, of a monstrous beast crashing through the jungle in the dead of night.

Zoologists worked out that the population of the Cat Tien rhinos was very small, probably below 10; and it was assumed – I certainly assumed it – that no effort would be spared in safeguarding this wildlife treasure, South-east Asia's rarest animal. But here we are, a decade on, and the Vietnamese rhinos have gone. All of them. Poachers had the lot, for the booming market in rhino horn as a component of traditional Asian medicine.

Genetic analysis of dung samples has now shown that an animal shot in the park for its horn in April last year was the last. Millions of years, it had lasted, Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus; and then humans find it, and it's gone in 20. It wasn't easy to save, and was on the brink of extinction anyway, but the fact remains that we've snuffed it out.

We are the species that destroys. Is that not how humanity should be defined? Never mind the possession of consciousness, and language, and art, we are special in a different way: we are the only species capable of destroying our own habitat. Yet the more damage we do, the more plants and birds and mammals we wipe out, the more forests we cut down and the more seas we pollute, the more we seem to retreat into a secular, smiley, people-centred creed, and which insists that humans are basically, fundamentally, good.

Maybe they're not. Ever considered that? Ever looked at the baleful effect we have on the Earth, and considered that perhaps there is something deeply wrong with us as a species? Not to worry. That's not a thought that's allowed any more, now that we've thrown our gods away, and deified humanity instead. And anyway, it was only a rhino. In Vietnam, or somewhere. And who's bothered?

The rare, the beautiful and the jungle survivors

It will be fascinating to see what fate awaits the remainder of Vietnam's zoological peace dividend, the dozen or so new mammals that have turned up in the past 20 years as researchers have probed the country's jungles. They are led by the saola, a sort of cross between an antelope and a buffalo with long, backward-sloping horns and a white-striped, mournful-looking face – it's a beautiful animal – which inhabits the moist mountain forests of the Annamite mountains.

It was discovered in 1992 and not photographed until 1999. There are only a dozen or so recorded sightings, most of them of dead animals. There are none in zoos, but a reserve has been set up. At least three new species of deer have also been found, notably the giant muntjac, related to our own muntjac which is busy eating the undergrowth of the woods of southern England; and a major primate species, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, thought extinct, has been rediscovered, but is also very rare. Let's wish them luck; if they are to see out the 21st century, they will need a lot of it.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution