Vietnam Becoming Asia's Illegal Animal "Supermarket," Experts Warn

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
September 13, 2006
"We can eat anything with four legs, except the table," goes a popular
saying in Vietnam.

But this boast about the Vietnamese people's adventurous eating habits also speaks to concerns among conservationists, who say that rampant illegal trade of wildlife in the Southeast Asian country is pushing many species dangerously close to extinction.

(Vietnam facts, maps, more.)

Rich in species diversity, the country has become a major hub for the wildlife trade, supplying domestic and international markets with a variety of live animals or animal parts, experts say.

"The current levels of overexploitation for both legal and illegal wildlife trade are widely considered to be the single greatest threat to many species, over and above habitat loss and degradation," said Eric Coull, Greater Mekong representative for WWF, the international conservation organization.

This is especially true in Vietnam, he says, where wildlife populations are dwindling due to illegal trade and an increasing appetite for wild meat.

Recently the Vietnamese government stepped up efforts to deal with wildlife trafficking by implementing new laws and partnering with international conservation agencies.

But so far things haven't gotten significantly better, says WWF's Barney Long, who is based in Hanoi, Vietnam.

"The response [by the government] has been insufficient to deal with the scale of the problem, so the situation has little improved," he said.

Exotic Cuisine

Hunting and poaching of any animal without a permit has been banned in Vietnam since 1975.

But critics say enforcement is weak, and smugglers can easily forge permits.

Networks of organized criminals reportedly run most of the trafficking rings, using intimidation, corruption, and tricks to transport their loot.

Some smugglers even use wedding cars and funeral hearses as cover. In one case, a bear was placed in an ambulance dressed as a patient.

Each year nearly 3,300 tons (3,000 metric tons) of illegal live wildlife and animal products are shipped in and out of Vietnam. Only about 3 percent are intercepted, according to a report by Nguyen Van Song at Hanoi Agricultural University.

Commonly traded creatures include monitor lizards, cobras, pythons, macaques, tigers, and bears. Some wind up as pets, or their parts are used for souvenirs or folk medicines.

About three-quarters of the animals are sold as food, as wildlife meat is an expensive delicacy in many Asian countries.

Favorites include wild pig, porcupine, snake, and soft-shelled turtle. Snake blood and bear bile are also commonly added to wine.

"Considering the number of wildlife-meat restaurants in Vietnam, it is clear there is a serious conservation problem," said Tran Quang Phuong of the Small Carnivore Conservation Program (SCP) at Vietnam's Cuc Phuong National Park.

Recent surveys, Phuong says, have shown that small carnivores represent one of the largest parts of the wildlife trade in Vietnam.

For example, about a ton of meat from the catlike predator the civet is sold in the country each month.

Primates are also heavily targeted, says WWF's Long, and the demand is taking its toll. (Related news: "Extinction Risk for 1 in 3 Primates, Study Says" [October 2002].)

The white-headed leaf monkey population is down to around 60 individuals on Vietnam's Cat Ba Island.

And fewer than 40 eastern black crested gibbons remain in one reserve in northwest Vietnam, the only place besides China's Hainan Island where the creatures are known to exist.

Justice League

According to WWF, nearly half of all Hanoi residents surveyed said they had used wildlife products.

But Vietnam is not the only consumer of illegal wildlife.

(Related news: "Ape Meat Sold in U.S., European Black Markets" [July 2006].)

The country also serves as a collection and distribution point for trade among neighboring Asian nations.

Animals and their products are illegally brought in from Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even Africa, says Sulma Warne of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network based in Cambridge, England.

The goods are primarily sold to wealthy people in Vietnam, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong.

In December ten Southeast Asian countries formed a regional law enforcement network targeting criminals involved in the wildlife trade.

Dubbed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network, the group is forming regional task forces made up of police, customs, and environmental authorities to clamp down on the problem.

"These guys are going to start scaring some major wildlife traffickers out of business," said Steve Galster of the international conservation group WildAid, who is based in Thailand.

Such criminals, he said, "have been running roughshod over environmental agencies in Southeast Asia for too long."

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