Eating wildlife meat is considered a status symbol
A promotional email I received from Cuc Phuong National Park was tantalizing: “The ancient forest contains almost 2,000 species of trees and among them live some amazing and rare animals including the clouded leopard, Delacour’s langur, Owston’s civet, otters and Asian black bears! … owls, flying squirrels, lorises, bats and cats.”
But in trying to make arrangements to visit, the travel fixers my wife and I contacted were oddly hesitant about natural areas and wildlife, and kept nudging us back toward scenery or to cities. And then this email: “Have you been to Vietnam before, or know of the situation there? It’s pretty dire if you are not aware.” We asked: Dire for wildlife? “Very much so. In Vietnam, national parks are primarily in name only, and poaching (often practiced by park rangers) and worse has decimated wildlife.”
Calls to conservation personnel who live and work in Vietnam reconciled the seeming contradictions. Yes, the country is an epicenter for wild species diversity. No, wildlife travel is not much pursued, and Vietnam has also become a world center for criminal wildlife trafficking.
Its wild populations, already hemmed in by habitat destruction because of an exploding human population, are also being shot, snared and live-captured so efficiently that national parks and other natural areas are now mostly afflicted with “empty forest syndrome” – suitable forest habitat from which even small animals and birds have been hunted into local extinction. Other Asian countries are in various stages of the same convulsion. It’s frequently said that many new species vanish before science can even discover them.
Vietnam’s decline is especially intense. For example, in a single remote national preserve set aside for the saola and other rare animals, 23,000 cheap but fatally efficient wire snares were found in 2015. Tens of thousands more of these snares are placed each year, as fast as they can be confiscated. Despite intensive surveys, no verifiable sighting of a saola has occurred since six years ago. The last rhino was shot by poachers in the Cat Tien National Park in 2010. Tigers have been effectively hunted out of existence. Only tiny populations of bears and elephants hang on in small, vulnerable pockets. Nearly all of the many primate species are at risk of extinction.
Some of this carnage supplies appetites for Eastern traditional medicine in Vietnam and China. Examples of purported remedies include: tiger penises for impotence, bear bile for cancer, rhino horn for a hangover, loris bile to ease serious airway infections.
Even more of the motivation “is to supply the rampant demand for wildlife meat in urban restaurants, which is very much a status issue,” said Barney Long, director of species conservation for the nonprofit group Global Wildlife Conservation.
“This is not bush meat where poor people are hunting for food,” he said. “It’s a status symbol to take your business or government colleagues out for a wildlife meal. And honestly it’s on a scale that is mind-boggling. We’re talking not about one or two species but whole communities of wildlife disappearing.”
After further scouting, my wife and I decided to go anyway, arranging to fly into Hanoi and move quickly to Vietnam’s green outback. Then we would head south to Ho Chi Minh City for a circuit of the parks and natural areas there.
Over the course of our two-week trip, we found that some exquisite wild species hold out, although in threatened circumstances. And we were fortunate, if half-willing, witnesses to the struggle by native Vietnamese, and their international conservation allies, to halt what amounts to animal genocide.
Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s first national park, was created in 1962 by Ho Chi Minh, who said that “the current destruction of our forests will lead to serious effects on climate, productivity and life. The forest is gold. If we know how to conserve and manage it well, it will be very valuable.”
But despite the blandishments in that governmentissued invitation to the park we’d received, there are no more Delacour’s langurs in these forests, nor any other kind. No bears, leopards or smaller cats either, unless they are so well hidden that even scientists cannot find them, Adam Davies, director of the Endangered Primate Rescue Center, told me.
Instead, the richest collection of rare animals can be found along a quiet narrow park road lined by animal rescue centers that amounts to a kind of conservation superhighway. At the Primate Rescue Center, visitors can see four species of nearly extinct langurs (leaf-eating monkeys), gibbons and lorises, many of which were rescued from traffickers. They are doctored back to health, bred when possible and, in especially fortunate circumstances, returned to the wild. Poachers make the rest of this national park too hostile a landscape to risk releasing most kinds of animals, Davies said.
A few steps away are two other rescue centers. One protects dozens of species of turtles, many of striking beauty, all of them endangered. The other is for confiscated leopard cats, civets, the binturong or bearcat – which has been compared to a dust-mop that smells like fresh popcorn – and the pangolin, an armadillo-like animal whose meat and scales can command $500 a pound on menus or in folkcure apothecaries.
“Pangolin is currently the world’s most trafficked mammal, which is a very unwanted title,” Davies said.
His center reintroduced some critically endangered Delacour’s langurs to the wild in the Van Long Wetland Nature Reserve. There we boarded a small rowboat for a half-day float within a protected gorge. The langurs, now breeding successfully somewhere out there, stayed hidden. That’s the nature of such quests, of course: Enjoy the pretty sojourn, even if your quarry eludes you.
Then heading back we heard shouts from a farmer. He was pointing excitedly at some shaking trees on the opposite shore. A rowdy group of 10 langurs ultimately emerged – this species is black with what look like muttonchop side whiskers and white pants – and we spent most of a transfixed hour watching them groom and chase and bask in the intense subtropical sun. With luck, they’ll continue to be protected here and not become fodder for the meat or pet trades.
The corruption that afflicts Vietnam’s one-party government, along with the growing economy, are major factors in the disappearance of natural habitat and endangered species. Corruption was given as a major reason for weak protections and slack enforcement by the conservation groups we spoke with.
“There are issues with corruption in all segments of Vietnamese society, and forest protection is no different,” said Andrew Tilker, a U.S. field researcher who tracks the saola and other rare species.
Some courageous officials push back, and both homegrown and international conservation groups can cite successes. But the consensus view is that the wider prospect for Vietnam’s wild species is quickly deteriorating. The government has earned a corruption ranking from the group Transparency International that could be charitably summarized as “dismal.”
Vietnam is not alone in failing to protect its wild species, of course. In the U.S., many of our “protected” animals are being pushed nearer the edge. Initiatives from the Trump administration have rolled back the designation of some national monuments and would weaken the Endangered Species Act.
If there’s hope for Vietnam’s natural heritage, we learned, some of it resides with creative, sometimes courageous conservation groups like Education for NatureVietnam. They push research, criminal investigations, political fights and legal maneuvers forward. Those bring risk.
Another source of hope for Vietnam lies in engaging local communities in wildlife protection with economic incentives. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, sponsors sustainable rattan and acacia farming as buffer zones for beleaguered natural preserves along the western border with Laos. In other places, environmental groups pay local people a living wage to patrol the rain forest and collect those thousands of deadly snares.
Tourism, growing quickly in Vietnam, can also sustain wild areas, although only if it is carefully managed. International tourism arrivals neared 15.5 million in 2018 – a startling 64 percent jump above the 2016 figure, which explains the forest of construction cranes we saw. They, in turn, explain the habitat fragmentation and near-extinction of the Cat Ba langur and other species that used to inhabit this landscape.
I then took a solo trip to Cat Tien National Park. On a sweltering afternoon, a young park ranger led us on a two-hour “wildlife trek.” This time we really were in a silent forest. The only thing we encountered were squadrons of dry-ground leeches. Blood blossoms very quickly appeared on my socks.
I stayed at the edge of the park in the Cat Tien Jungle Lodge. Its proprietors, Duong Thi Ngoc Phuong and Gary Leong, work to help protect Cat Tien from mass tourism and to build economic ties with impoverished people to dissuade them from poaching. “Without the animals, there is little reason for the park’s existence,” Leong said.