Eat­ing wildlife meat is con­sid­ered a sta­tus sym­bol

The Buffalo News - - TRAVEL -

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.

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