A rare rhino goes quietly in Vietnam

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 disappeared from the Earth for ever didn't hit the front pages, or the television headlines. A rhino in Vietnam? So what?

But I've been thinking about it ever since. I find the story gripping. Nobody knew there were 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 forests of the Cat Tien National Park north of Ho Chi Minh City. Imagine suddenly finding out your country's got rhinos? It's like finding wolves 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 series of large mammals previously unknown to science.

The Vietnamese rhino was the first; 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 by an automatic pre-positioned camera which captured an unforgettable image of a monstrous beast crashing through the jungle at 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.

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.