How to Destroy a Mainland Madagascar
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 24, 2013
This is a review I wrote for the Wall Street Journal:
Gold Rush in the Jungle
By Dan Drollette Jr.
(Crown, 310 pages, $25)
If you delight, as I do, in strange, colorful animals, and like to see a lot of them at the same time, the usual strategy is to visit islands, where isolation has a way of breeding eccentricity. But over the past few decades, Vietnam has revealed itself, improbably, as a sort of mainland Madagascar. It is a mother lode of newly described species, many of them upland refugees in a region cut off from mainland Asia during the ice age.
You might think that outsiders had already taken care of that. During what is known there as “the American War,” U.S. forces doused Vietnam with about 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants, destroying 7,700 square miles of forest. Earlier, in the French colonial era, a single big-game hunter in the Annamite Mountains gunned down 600 deer, 50 tigers and panthers, and 40 elephants (about as many as now survive in the entire nation).
But the era of mass extinctions has really taken off as Vietnam has developed into an economic powerhouse, with average annual GDP growth of 6.3% over the past dozen years. The rising middle class has so far developed an appetite for the natural world only in the most literal sense: The craving for exotic meats and traditional medicines often leads to what naturalists call “empty forest syndrome.” In 1992, for instance, Vietnam designated Cát Tiên National Park, north of Ho Chi Minh City, as a reserve for mainland Asia’s last population of Javan rhinos. But the government never provided adequate protection, particularly during a world-wide rhino-poaching crisis said to be largely driven by Vietnam itself. At Cát Tiên in 2010, poachers butchered the nation’s last surviving rhino for the imaginary medicinal value of its horn.
In “Gold Rush in the Jungle,” science writer Dan Drollette Jr. attempts to tell this story of discovery amid pell-mell destruction. He focuses primarily on the work of Tilo Nadler, an East German immigrant whose Endangered Primate Rescue Center south of Hanoi has become a final refuge for many species, including some rescued from Vietnam’s rampant illegal traffic in wildlife and some new species discovered by Mr. Nadler’s team.
Having started in 1993 with a few acres and a budget of just $20,000 a year, Mr. Nadler now maintains about 15 species in captivity, mainly highly endangered monkeys. To critics who argue for protecting whole habitats rather than plucking out a few charismatic species for captive breeding, Mr. Nadler replies: “The biggest problem in Vietnam is that there is no time for education on environmental issues. It takes twenty years to see the effects of an education program, and these species don’t have even ten years. . . . You can’t put animals back in the wild if they are extinct.”
It is a timely story, and with plenty of potential take-home. Mr. Drollette points out, for instance, that the U.S. is by far the biggest customer for wood furniture from Vietnam. That bedroom set with the attractive price tag? It often comes at an unspoken cost: We are supplying the cash to cut down the forests where Mr. Nadler’s monkeys used to live.
Unfortunately, “Gold Rush in the Jungle” is a dismally inept book, starting with the title, which risks reinforcing the widespread suspicion in emerging countries that naturalists are somehow cashing in on their discoveries. Mr. Drollette even quotes an unintentionally hilarious line from Michael Crichton’s novel “Congo” about a biologist driven to discover new species by “his insensate lust for fame.” (Look for your favorite taxonomist edging Kim Kardashian off the cover of next week’s People magazine.)
The book’s flat-footed language often sounds like the narration in a Wes Anderson film, minus the irony: “His take on the situation was that the horror and the beauty associated with the country coexisted simultaneously, much like what is found in Mother Nature.” It’s also riddled with minor errors. It wasn’t Ernst Mayr who coined the term “island biogeography”; it was Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson. It wasn’t other biologists who said “God created, Linnaeus arranged”; it was Linnaeus himself. And on a personal note, it wasn’t “some scientists” who proposed creating a “Wall of the Dead” to commemorate the naturalists who have lost their lives in the search for new species. That was me, and I’m a writer, not a scientist.
But the real problem with this book is that Mr. Drollette almost never takes the reader out into the forest to show us through his own eyes just what we are losing. He seems to consider a 25-minute walk from a paved road a voyage into Vietnam’s “lost world.” He gets unnerved being alone in a room with, of all things, a captive civet, a small, mongoose-like mammal with a fondness for fruit, coffee beans and fermented palm sap. His big wildlife encounter involves the moths gathered on a bedsheet under a porch light in Mr. Nadler’s yard.
It is a pity, because there is still time for the outside world to help Vietnam protect the natural wonders that are its best real shot at a sustainable future. Or maybe we should just despair. When Vietnamese VIPs tour his captive breeding facility, Mr. Nadler tells Mr. Drollette that they often conclude by saying: “We’ve seen your animals. Where’s your restaurant? Now we want to eat exotic animals.”