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Science writer Dan Drollette Jr. pens book about the race to discover and protect the exotic animals of Vietnam

  • Science writer Dan Drollette Jr., outside his Northampton home, has written his first book, "Gold Rush in the Jungle."<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Science writer Dan Drollette Jr., outside his Northampton home, has written his first book, "Gold Rush in the Jungle."

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dan Drollette Jr., at his Northampton home, visited Vietnam twice to do research for his book, "Gold Rush in the Jungle." <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Dan Drollette Jr., at his Northampton home, visited Vietnam twice to do research for his book, "Gold Rush in the Jungle."

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>Dan Drollette Jr. talks about his book "Gold Rush in the Jungle" at his home in Northampton.


    Dan Drollette Jr. talks about his book "Gold Rush in the Jungle" at his home in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>Dan Drollette Jr. talks about his book "Gold Rush in the Jungle" at his home in Northampton.


    Dan Drollette Jr. talks about his book "Gold Rush in the Jungle" at his home in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Annam flying frog is reputed to get around forests by spreading its webbed toes and leaping from tree to tree like a flying squirrel. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Hao Quang of the Center for Biodiversity and Development, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

    The Annam flying frog is reputed to get around forests by spreading its webbed toes and leaping from tree to tree like a flying squirrel. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Hao Quang of the Center for Biodiversity and Development, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Purchase photo reprints »

  • A civet, a Vietnamese cat-like creature that secretes a chemical highly sought by the perfume industry. Photo courtesy of Dan Drollette Jr.

    A civet, a Vietnamese cat-like creature that secretes a chemical highly sought by the perfume industry. Photo courtesy of Dan Drollette Jr. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Science writer Dan Drollette Jr., outside his Northampton home, has written his first book, "Gold Rush in the Jungle."<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Dan Drollette Jr., at his Northampton home, visited Vietnam twice to do research for his book, "Gold Rush in the Jungle." <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • <br/>Dan Drollette Jr. talks about his book "Gold Rush in the Jungle" at his home in Northampton.
  • <br/>Dan Drollette Jr. talks about his book "Gold Rush in the Jungle" at his home in Northampton.
  • The Annam flying frog is reputed to get around forests by spreading its webbed toes and leaping from tree to tree like a flying squirrel. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Hao Quang of the Center for Biodiversity and Development, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
  • A civet, a Vietnamese cat-like creature that secretes a chemical highly sought by the perfume industry. Photo courtesy of Dan Drollette Jr.

In an age when news flashes around the world in seconds, and every corner of the globe has been explored and mapped, is it possible that some species of mammals — including pretty good-sized ones — can go undetected?

It’s not just possible, says Dan Drollette Jr. — it’s an established pattern in Vietnam and parts of neighboring Laos and Cambodia, where decades of war, rugged terrain and perhaps evolutionary fate have kept a bevy of unusual animals largely hidden, at least from Western eyes, until the last 20 years.

From a deer that barks, to a half-goat/half-ox, to a frog that jumps from tree to tree and monkeys that only eat a particular kind of leaf, these species have drawn numerous wildlife biologists and conservationists to Vietnam in the past two decades. But they’ve also attracted poachers and others looking to make a fast buck from the animals’ flesh, hides and other body parts.

It’s an engrossing story that Drollette, a veteran science writer now living in Northampton, lays out in his first book, “Gold Rush in the Jungle,” by Crown Publishing. It’s also an interesting and often funny portrait of Vietnam, a country Drollette visited twice for extended periods in 1998 and 2010, a span during which Vietnam underwent rapid economic growth, putting additional pressure on wildlife.

As Drollette notes in his book, one wildlife conservationist has dubbed Vietnam “a miniature China on steroids.”

“There were so many different threads to this story, things I wanted to put in context, that I felt writing a book was the best way to do it,” Drollette, 50, said during a recent interview in his home. “I’d written about some of these issues before, but there was a larger story to tell.”

To do that, he interviewed a wide range of people — wildlife biologists, zoo officials, Vietnamese park rangers and government administrators, conservationists and former Viet Cong members — and spent time trekking into the jungle and visiting Vietnamese nature preserves.

“As much as possible, I like to do reporting from the field,” he said.

Drollette’s led something of a peripatetic life over the past 17 years, working as a freelance journalist, journalism teacher, editor and photo editor. Born in Whately and educated in part at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he lived and worked for several years in Australia in the 1990s and more recently returned to the Valley after a four-year stint in France as an editor for a magazine published by CERN, a European center of nuclear research.

It was during his time in Australia, when he wrote about Australian and Pacific wildlife and environmental issues for U.S. magazines, that he first caught wind of stories filtering out of Vietnam about unusual animals. He learned of a transplanted German conservationist, Tilo Nadler, who had established an organization there called the Endangered Primate Rescue Center (EPRC), and decided in 1998 to pay him a visit.

“Vietnam, and really all of Southeast Asia, is very accessible from Australia,” Drollette said. “And by Western standards, it’s also very inexpensive to travel ... that gave me the chance to cover a fair amount of ground.”

His knockabout journey in 1998 makes for some entertaining, Bill Bryon-esque anecdotes, from bouncing on muddy, rural roads on the back of a motorcycle taxi — one of the few ways to get around much of Vietnam in those days, he writes — to observing the Vietnamese practice of eating raw monkey brains, taken straight out of a live animal’s sawed-open skull.

He also nearly places his head in an ancient guillotine in a museum, the blade held up only by “a tattered piece of rope,” and he notes that the country’s attitude toward the Vietnam War seems to be largely one of pragmatic, “it’s in the past” acceptance: A chain of popular bars in the country goes by the name “Apocalypse Now.”

“The entire country seemed to be a fun-house version of the conflict known here as the American War,” he writes.

Fluke of history

The Vietnam War, and before that the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during World War II and then the Vietnamese war for independence against the French in the 1950s, also likely played a big role in concealing the presence of many exotic animal species, Drollette says.

“It was really an unexpected fluke of history,” he said. “You had decades of war that prevented the kind of exploration and discovery that took place in other places around the world. And then after the Vietnam War ended, Vietnam didn’t open its doors to the West again until 1992.”

Since then, he notes, the number of new animal and plant species unknown to the outside world has mushroomed; in the last 10 years alone, an average of two new species have been found each week, he writes.

There’s the barking deer, known as the Giant muntjac, and an enormous soft-shelled turtle, only a handful of which still exist. There’s the civet, a cat-like mammal with a face a bit like that of a raccoon, which secretes a chemical highly sought by the perfume industry. Another odd critter is the raccoon-dog, a tree-climbing creature that is the only canid known to hibernate.

One of the most highly-sought animals is also the most elusive. The kouprey is a wild, primitive ox-like animal that, Drollette writes, would likely be worth billions to the cattle industry if its disease-resistant genes could be introduced to domestic cattle. But only one kouprey has ever even been photographed, a specimen that apparently was taken by mistake to a Paris zoo in 1937 but then died a few years later.

“Gold Rush in the Jungle” describes unsuccessful efforts to find and capture other koupreys in the past several decades, including an elephant-mounted expedition in 1994 convened by a swashbuckling American journalist, Nate Thayer, the last person to interview Cambodian butcher Pol Plot. Thayer’s group, exploring for koupreys in the Cambodian jungle near the Vietnamese border, was shot at by Khmer gunmen and sickened by malaria and heat prostration.

In examining Vietnam’s history, Drollette also looks at theories about why the country developed such unique wildlife. He notes that scientists view it as something of a “biological hot spot,” where the subtropics meet the temperate zone, mountains are close to the sea and animals may have been “marooned” during the last ice age, allowing them to develop in isolation.

All of these animals have excited wildlife experts from outside the region, as well as Vietnamese scientists who want to preserve their country’s biodiversity, because, as Drollette writes, at a time when “it’s 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.”

Yet those same experts are up against formidable opposition, notably poachers. In many parts of Asia, particularly China, animal parts are coveted for medicinal purposes, aphrodisiacs, or their meat and fur, Drollette notes. “Vietnam is a conduit for a lot of stuff that goes up to China,” he said. Some animals are taken by trophy hunters, or for other body parts: The Javan rhino, another rare Vietnamese species, became extinct in 2011, as poachers killed off the animals for the ivory in their horns.

Biologists hoping to preserve and study animals also still grapple in places with the Vietnam War’s legacy, in the form of unexploded mines and bombs. But a bigger challenge, as Drollette discovered during his 2010 trip to Vietnam, has been the country’s rapid pace of development, which has destroyed considerable amounts of wildlife habitat. Several years ago, a highway was built right through Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s oldest national park.

Despite all that, Drollette says there’s hope for the country’s unique animals, given the commitment of conservationists like Tilo Nadler.

“I didn’t want to write a book that was all doom and gloom, yet another environmental disaster,” he said. “There’s some good news, especially when you look at things on a case-by-case basis.”

Nadler, for instance, has been able to move a good number of threatened leaf-eating monkeys, known as Delacour langurs, to a protected habitat, and staff and funding for the EPRC have increased significantly over the years. In addition, Drollette notes, preservation projects for other animals and habitat, led both by Vietnamese conservationists and international groups, have cropped up throughout the country.

“I’m not sure how it will all play out, but I hope for the best,” he said. “It’s been a fascinating story to cover.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Dan Drollette Jr. will do a reading at Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls at 6:30 p.m. on June 6.

Dan Drollette's appearance at Boswell's Books in Shelburne Falls has been changed to Thursday June 27 at 6:30pm.

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