Can Vietnam Stop Its Trade in Endangered Wild Animals?

A commentary by Dan Southerland
2020-06-09
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vietnam-wildlife2.jpg Vietnamese customs officials inspect seized suspected ivory in a timber shipment from the Republic of Congo in a warehouse in Danang, March 28, 2019.
AFP

UPDATED at 2:45 P.M. EDT on 2020-06-12

Vietnam is considering a plan to end the poaching and consumption of the Southeast Asian nation’s wild animals.

The VnExpress news agency reported in mid-March that Prime Minister Nguyen Phuc Xuan had ordered Vietnam’s Agriculture Ministry to “soon” draft a directive to ban these activities and to submit it to the government no later than April 1.

But as Michael Tatarski, a freelance journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City, reported in an article written for the environmental website Mongabay.com in late May, that date has “come and gone” with “no information on the requested ban.”

The wildlife trade in Vietnam is a lucrative business believed to bring profits totaling at least $1 billion a year.

Vietnam, like neighboring Thailand, is also a key hub on global wildlife trafficking routes.

Not surprisingly, organized criminal gangs are said to be involved.

The Guardian newspaper said that Prime Minister Phuc’s call for a trade ban directive is seen as a victory for animal rights organizations and has led to hopes that it will “lead to clamping down on street-side markets,” which are located across Vietnam, as well as to an increase in prosecutions of online wildlife traders.

According to The Guardian, up until now many Vietnamese wildlife traders have openly advertised on Facebook, showing photos of leopard cats caught in mesh nets and dead pangolins stored in a freezer.

Also shown have been slaughtered macaque monkeys, frozen tiger cubs, butchered bats, and even freshly barbecued wildlife.

The trade pays well enough to draw in thousands of Vietnamese farms, The Guardian said.

Many middle-class Vietnamese consider serving exotic animals at meals as a sign of their status. Some also believe that wildlife animal “products” have medicinal benefits, although no scientific evidence is available to support such beliefs.

Wildlife exports to China and Hong Kong

Many of Vietnam’s wildlife “products,” including among other things, the scales from pangolins, get exported to China and to Hong Kong.

As The Economist magazine explained early last month, “eating pangolins is illegal in China, but putting their scales into medical concoctions is not.”

More than 700 hospitals in China are allowed to prescribe these anteaters’ scales, which they can buy from the government.

This and the Chinese government’s approval of pangolin farms, The Economist says, provide cover for illegal trading.

Pangolins are found in several Asian countries, including both China and Vietnam. But China’s demand for their scales has taken a heavy toll in Vietnam.  So pangolins are now reported to be coming mostly into China from Africa.

In Vietnam, meanwhile, 14 local organizations have recommended a wildlife trading ban in order to prevent the spread of epidemics.

As Tatarski notes, experts believe that the current coronavirus epidemic began when a virus jumped from a wild animal to a human at a wet market in Wuhan, China.

China closed its wildlife markets to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Vietnam, meanwhile, has been applauded for successfully containing the coronavirus outbreak.

When it comes to enforcement of the law, VnExpress reports that at least one big-time wildlife trader has been caught.

Pham Thi Tuan, 58, was fined 60 million Vietnamese Dong, equal to $2,560 at a trial last December. But prosecutors said the punishment was too lenient and sought a harsher sentence.

In August 2018, Vietnamese police entered Tuan’s house and found “13 endangered King cobras, nearly 300 turtles, and many other species for which she failed to provide any documentation.”

According to VnExpress, it’s illegal to hunt, kill, possess, capture, transport, or trade protected animals In Vietnam, and violators can get up to 15 years in prison.

The problem up until now at least has been lax implementation of the laws.

One example is the lowly pangolin, which is now by most estimates considered to be the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Officials sorting seized pangolin scales at a port in southern Vietnam's Ba Ria Vung Tau province, May 23, 2019.
Officials sorting seized pangolin scales at a port in southern Vietnam's Ba Ria Vung Tau province, May 23, 2019.
Credit: AFP
Pangolins sought for meat and cures

The Vietnamese government passed a law more than two years ago banning the sale of pangolins, but implementation of the law appears to have been weak.

Pangolins, which are anteaters found in both Asia and Africa, have been designated as threatened by the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“All eight pangolin species are now listed as threatened with extinction, largely because they are being traded to China and Vietnam” said Jonathan Baillie, co-chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group at the IUCN.

Pangolins are much sought after for their meat and their scales, which when ground up are believed to remove toxins and cure a variety of ailments, including everything from arthritis to cancer.

Users boil the pangolin and remove the scales, then dry and toast them for traditional medical use.

Some users claim that the scales help to treat kidney disorders and palsy as well as skin diseases.

Pangolins sometimes serve as the centerpiece of a Vietnamese banquet.

Paul Mooney, a freelance journalist based in Hanoi, learned from a Vietnamese acquaintance, an innkeeper, that a banquet serving pangolin could cost between five million and 10 million Vietnamese dong.

That’s the equivalent of roughly $215 to $430 dollars, which would be a high price to pay for most Vietnamese but affordable for those who host big banquets in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Caged Black Bears

In early 2018, this commentator wrote that some experts saw headway being made to free caged Asiatic black bears that were being used for the extraction of bile in several Asian countries.

Some of the bears’ body parts are considered delicacies in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based charity, signed an agreement with the Vietnamese government nearly three years ago to ensure a complete end to bear bile farming in Vietnam by 2022.

"Both ourselves and the Vietnamese government remain firmly committed to this agreement and timeframe," Animals Asia's spokesman Brian Daly told RFA.

He said that his foundation continued to work "very closely and effectively" with the Vietnamese Government on this issue, pointing out that five more bears from farms in Vietnam had been rescued despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 outbreak.

Until recently at least, Vietnam has scored poorly in protecting wildlife. According to a report written by Nguyen Quy for VnExpress, Vietnam has ranked as one of the worst performing countries in Asia, along with Myanmar, in terms of policies and laws designed to protect animals.

An index created by the international charity World Animal Protection ranks 50 countries around the world.  Vietnam got an “F,” ranking behind India, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, Indonesia, and Japan.

Traffic, a non-profit, UK-based wildlife trade monitoring organization, recently published a report analyzing thousands of successful seizures of trafficked wildlife across 10 nations in Southeast Asia.

The study highlighted the issues that have allowed the illegal trade in wildlife to thrive, including the existence of organized crime networks that move wildlife contraband from country to country. Other issues include poor conviction rates, inadequate laws, and the poor regulation of markets.

One of the more startling recent findings by experts is the existence of a thriving illegal trade in python skins.

Matt McGrath, an environmental correspondent for the BBC, reported a number of years ago that a half million python skins were being exported annually from Southeast Asia in a trade worth $1 billion.

A growing demand for handbags and other items was fuelling imports of the python skins, according to a report from the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations.

As McGrath notes, it’s difficult make a case for halting the trade because snakes “don’t evoke much sympathy.”

But some methods of killing the snakes in Southeast Asian nations, including decapitation, are said to be cruel.

One of the saddest stories to emerge in recent years is the decline in the numbers of tigers in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries.

As is the case in China, tigers are prized in Southeast Asia for their pelts and bones.

In 2015, according to the Swiss-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF), only about 80 tigers survived in the wild in Vietnam.  Today only a much smaller number still roam in the wild, sharply down from the days when hundreds of them ranged across mountains and forests.

On April 14, 2016 the website VietNamNet reported that only five tigers were left in the wild in Vietnam.

Vietnam is likely soon or even now only to have tigers that are held in captivity in zoos and parks.

A few positive developments

On the positive side, Vietnam appears to have succeeded in cutting down on imports of rhino horns from Africa. This appears to be partly due to international pressure.

Ground-up rhino horns are believed to treat a variety of maladies, including everything from cancer to hangovers. Serving them with a dinner endows the host of the meal with a certain status.

When it comes to pangolins, there is little on the positive side to report. Pangolins are shy creatures which normally do not take well to captivity.

But in Malaysia, scientists have announced that an online event will take place on June 12 featuring Malaysia’s first captive-born baby pangolin, according to the newsletter “Green Echoes” from the Environmental Reporting Collective.

In another positive development, The Guardian reports that scientists have mastered the use of “frozen zoos” to reproduce endangered amphibians, which may be the smallest of Vietnam’s endangered animals.

A toad named Olaf is reported to be the first of his species to be born in a zoo from previously frozen sperm.

And at a zoo in Cologne, Germany, a bony-headed toad, which would have been designated as endangered in Vietnam, is said to be thriving.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.

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