Vietnam's Vanishing Wildlife

The word "Vietnam" conjures images of war for most of us, but the conflict that has evolved since foreign troops pulled out of the Southeast Asian nation decades ago is not about North versus South and competing political ideologies-it is a war waging poachers against forest wildlife. While the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) had its seventeenth meeting of the Animals Committee in Vietnam's capitol, Hanoi, the once vibrant and lively jungles outside the city were remarkably silent.

It was heart wrenching to walk through Hanoi's market where live chickens and geese were crammed together in metal cages awaiting their purchase and subsequent slaughter. Of course, cruel poultry housing exists in America but is usually hidden behind corporate agribusiness walls. Frogs struggled in a dry bucket, tied three together around their midsections; huge live fish and eels flopped in tubs with water barely covering their vulnerable bodies. Each time a dog barked I wondered if she was a beloved family pet or dinner some night soon.

The street market also offers numerous shops selling products that appeared to contain wildlife parts: small boxes made in China depicting a tiger or seal; alcoholic elixirs, which had shaved deer antler dirtying the bottom of the bottle like broken seashells and sand beneath the sea. At Animals Committee meetings since 1998, AWI has pushed for greater attention to traditional Asian medicines that include ingredients from CITES-listed threatened and endangered species such as Asiatic black bears and tigers. We have long encouraged the creation of a list of these medicinal species to assess the risk of such use to wild populations and analyze whether or not the medicines could employ alternatives that do not threaten wildlife. Progress has been slow, but this year a preliminary list of traditional medicine species finally was considered, and work to expand this inventory will continue. Hopefully, Parties will be able to examine the trade data for species heavily used in this global medicinal market and make recommendations to protect species at risk before it's too late. It would be shameful if traditional efforts to improve human health by using animal-based medicines destroyed ecological health by wiping out vital species.

Similarly, dire conservation and trade threats exist for freshwater turtles and tortoises in Asia and elsewhere, who are sold for food, traditional medicine and as pets. The Committee approved the  conducting of a Workshop in Indonesia in early 2002 to examine this trade more closely. Meanwhile, in Vietnam's forests, various turtle species cling to life while poachers scavenge for these benign creatures. The Turtle Conservation and Ecology Project, based at Vietnam's Cuc Phuong National Park, endeavors to protect Vietnam's 22 native turtle species from illegal trade and habitat loss by rescuing and rehabilitating turtles including those confiscated from traders. Today, fewer turtles exist in Vietnam's jungles for these traders to nab. One of the rescue center's volunteers observed that it now takes ten poachers a week to catch as many turtles as two poachers used to catch in a day. According to the official regional report for Asia offered at the CITES meeting, China, a heavy turtle and tortoise consuming country, has "suspended the importation of fresh water turtle and tortoise species from Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia and countries that do not have export quotas." Vietnam, however, is reportedly a vital transit point for turtle shipments from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos into China. The omission of Vietnam from this import suspension is an ominous one.

The turtle project is not the only one in the National Park. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center provides sanctuary to various species of langurs and gibbons, including animals who were confiscated or born at the Center. There is also an Owston's Palm Civet Conservation Program to help this small Asian carnivore, which is threatened by habitat destruction and illegal hunting for meat and its alleged curative powers. According to Scott Roberton, the Program Coordinator, "The Program works not only on field research but tackles the issue of welfare in the limited number of zoos holding the species….The trade of small carnivores is hardly monitored and we intend to fill this gap."

There is some concern by conservationists in Vietnam that the government will promote the captive breeding of species such as turtles and civets for eventual release into the wild, without considering the possibilities that captive bred animals may be unable to survive in the wild, and traders may capture released animals again for the trade. The CITES Animals Committee has also been wrestling with the issue of captive breeding and whether there should be a list of Appendix I (no commercial trade allowed) species that are "critically endangered in the wild and/or known to be difficult to breed or keep in captivity." For species not on this list, breeding facilities can avoid registering with the CITES Secretariat, a process that allows other Parties to object. A grave threat exists to all species of bears from the international trade in their parts and products made from them. If bears, for instance, are not on the list, Chinese bear farms could begin selling endangered Asiatic black bears' parts more easily for international profit, to the detriment of all bears globally. Animal welfare groups have been working hard against this misguided change while the CITES Secretariat and certain Party representatives work with equal diligence to complete it. The decision taken at the most recent meeting enables the Secretariat to create a list of applicable species from the class Reptilia, but only as a pilot project. The Committee's work drags on slowly and the fight will continue at next year's meeting in Costa Rica.

It was announced at the meeting that Vietnam has drafted national legislation to implement CITES and "Vietnam has stopped the exportation of wildlife taken from the wild." Will the Vietnamese government enforce the legislation and export ban vigorously? Will these moves to protect Vietnam's wildlife have come too late?


Top Two Pictures:  Bottles of alcohol with whole snakes lined up in a shop in Hanoi's huge outdoor market; confiscated bear gall product displayed at the Cuc Phuong National Park visitor center. Adam M. Roberts/AWI.

Middle Bottom Picture: One of the Red-shanked Douc Langurs at the Endangered Primate Research Center. Tilo Nadler/EPRC.

Bottom Picture: Note the hole drilled by poachers in this turtle's shell near his head. One end of a rope is tied through the hole and the other to a tree. Later, the poachers retrace their steps collecting the tethered reptiles, exiting with turtles dangling helplessly from the ropes slung over their shoulders. Adam M. Roberts/AWI.

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