Where the Wild Things Were: Vietnam

This is the first installment of the author's “Indochina in the Anthropocene” series, which narrates the environmental crisis in Southeast Asia. Check out the other stories in this series:

Vietnam is in a national species extinction crisis and has been for a long time, according to 2014 research by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Elephants are down to about 60 animals, tigers are almost certainly extinct, the giant ibis might already be gone.

The IUCN journal CATnews said in 2014 that the Javan rhinoceros, kouprey, hog deer and Bengal florican were driven to extinction during the late 20th century of military and political upheaval. Other species perilously close to being gone include the Asian elephant, giant ibis, and tiger. Vietnam is located in what biologists refer to as the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot and has a high rate of endemism, of species unique to defined geographic locations

It wasn’t always like this. Near the middle of the 20th century, before the outbreak of wars that lasted over the next three decades, Vietnam was considered by many hunters one of the best places for big game in Asia. Colonel Charles Askins in 1959, on the eve of decades of destruction, called it “one of the best game lands on the face of the earth.” So vast and unexplored was Vietnam’s wilderness that wildlife sightings weren’t limited to the confirmed zoological realm.

Tales about the nguoi rung or “forest man” date back to the time when a young Frenchman named Thomas Caraman washed up in Saigon in 1865 seeking fortune and glory. In his book Colonial Cambodia’s ‘Bad Frenchmen’ (2006) author Gregor Muller describes how soon after Caraman arrived in Vietnam he was preparing for “an expedition to a remote jungle location where someone had apparently sighted a savage tribe living in tree tops, whose members—half humans, half apes—still sported a tiny tail.”

Fast forward a few more decades and American soldiers fighting in Vietnam were reporting encounters with orangutan-like giant apes, according to Kregg P.J. Jorgenson in his 2001 book Very Crazy G.I.: Strange but True Stories of the Vietnam War. Biologists Jeffrey A. McNeely and Paul Spencer Wachtel describe a meeting in Soul of the Tiger (1988) with a former U.S. Vietnam War veteran who claimed that two soldiers in his platoon “had had their heads torn off by the powerful beast.”

So many anecdotal reports about this creature were reaching Hanoi from North Vietnamese Army combatants that the North Vietnam government asked the noted environmentalist and Professor Vo Quy to investigate (incidentally, I had been corresponding with Professor Vo Quy before his death in 2017 about nguoi rung reports in Chu Mom Ray National Park, and he was still enthusiastic about trying to find them in this area by way of remote camera-trapping; sadly, our plans never materialized).

Was this creature some relic species that was never catalogued? Is it the last population of Gigantopithecus, stirred from its final holdouts by the dropping of U.S. ordnance and chemical defoliants during the war? Could it have been homo erectus itself? Or were these sightings all just a big coincidence or some kind of mass hallucination? (The Saola and the Large-antlered muntjac weren’t known to science until 1993 and 1994 respectively, and they are large mammals that hail from the same Vietnamese mountains where stories of the nguoi rung come from).

I am not so concerned about the answers to these questions. What interests me is that there was once a landscape, a boundless rainforest with limestone crags, waterfalls, swift rivers, high peaks, and deep caves that was so vast and remote that it could be filled with mystery and stories like these. Rhinos, tigers, and elephants once swarmed in this landscape of possibilities, but what are we left with today?

Tenacious, indigenous Vietnamese and even foreign game hunters were killing wildlife for commercial purposes and trophies well before the country’s war with the United States, but it was that devastating conflict that was really the beginning of the end for Vietnam’s natural heritage. Napalm, chemical defoliants like agent orange, carpet-bombing, and ordnance of all sorts turned swaths of once-lush country into moonscapes.

Specially modified Rome Plows were used to tear down jungle, and machine guns left over from the war replaced cross-bows and blow-pipes, which greatly increased a hunter’s chances of hitting his quarry in the forest.

In the decades following the war, the Vietnamese and Chinese economies opened to the world, and with rising wealth both countries fueled massive domestic demand for wildlife products, exotic pets, luxury timber that denuded forests, hydroelectric power that dammed rivers and flooded valleys to produce electricity, and minerals in the ground such as bauxite for the production of a myriad of products. Vietnam’s natural heritage, it seems, will never be the same.

There are no more tigers, kouprey, or rhinoceros in the wild Vietnam today, and just a handful of elephants hang on. Birder friends tell me to forget about the Giant Ibis in Vietnam. It’s history. I asked some Vietnamese friends from Kontum province about the nguoi rung and they replied without a moment’s hesitation: “30-40 years ago, they still existed in the mountains, but they’re gone now. Everyone from Kontum knew about them, and our elders spoke of them when we were children.”

One conservationist informed me that it took his team six years to camera-trap a single wild pig in his study area in the Annamite Mountains, and that sadly, entire mountains have been denuded of animal life. Farther afield, the Song Doong Cave, which is perhaps the world’s largest, is threatened by a planned cable car that would take tourists for a ride into the cave’s delicate ecosystem. Is all hope lost?

Maybe not. Last year a new “stone frog” species was discovered in the country, and a new species of tea plant was recently uncovered in central Vietnam. The country’s infamous bear bile farms may be closing, a new elephant protection area is being establish in Quang Nam province, while a “mysterious” and unknown herd of Asian elephants recently emerged from a forest in southern Vietnam. Efforts are also underway to save the Critically Endangered saola from extinction with the creation of a special breeding program, and NGOs such as PRCF Foundation are fighting hard to protect rare primates such as the Francois’ Langur, and the Douc Langur Foundation battles to save the beautiful doucs.

And after all, while Vietnam’s natural heritage has been heavily hammered by war, hunting, and economic development schemes, the rest of the planet isn’t doing that much better: it estimated that Earth is on track to lose two-thirds of its wild animals by 2020. That’s 18 months from now. Throughout history, the Vietnamese have proven time and again to be a resilient people, expelling the Chinese, Genghis Kahn, the French, and the Americans—and also deposing the Khmer Rouge’s Pol Pot in about two weeks flat. Perhaps their resilient and tough spirit can be a source of hope in protecting what remains of their amazing natural heritage.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for the NGO Habitat ID, and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.