By Rachel Nuwer, The New York Times, March 30, 2015
Restaurant workers cutting the heart from a live cobra in front of customers at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Rachel Nuwer for the New York Times.
U MINH, Vietnam — Luc Van Ho slips through a tangled thicket of jungle, graceful as a dancer. A blanket of dried bamboo and melaleuca leaves on the forest floor barely crackles beneath his bare feet. Only the smell of cigarette smoke betrays his presence.
A hunter, Mr. Luc, 45, set out at dawn from his family’s bamboo-thatched home in Vietnam’s U Minh forest to check a half dozen homemade traps rigged along animal trails in the underbrush and on canal banks frequented by snakes and turtles.
He stops at a snare trap made of wood and bicycle brake wire, nearly invisible beneath leaves. The trap is empty, not unusual.
“Before, this forest was very different,” Mr. Luc said. “Now, the animals are so few that most hunters are changing their jobs.”
Still, in the previous two weeks, Mr. Luc had caught nine Southeast Asian box turtles and Malayan snail-eating turtles, five elephant trunk snakes, a handful of water birds and two rare Himalayan griffon vultures. For safekeeping, Mr. Luc stashed the vultures in his brother’s house, leaving them tethered in the bedroom until he can figure out what to do with them.
Restaurant workers cutting the heart from a live cobra in front of customers at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.
In the past, Mr. Luc’s hunting trips often yielded wildlife bonanzas, including prized pangolins. Also known as scaly anteaters, they are among the most trafficked mammals in the world. Mr. Luc works with traders willing to buy live pangolins for $60 a pound.
Although he caught just two pangolins last year, that price makes it well worth the effort to keep seeking them out. He knows, however, that this lucrative resource is finite.
“Pangolins will be extinct soon,” he said. Still, he expresses no plans to retire.
Mr. Luc is one of thousands of illegal hunters draining Vietnam, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, of its animals. Its rhinoceroses have already gone extinct, and conservationists estimate that just a couple of its tigers, if any, remain. Even lesser known species like soft-shell turtles and civets are sought out for traditional medicines, food, trophies and pets.
Illegal wildlife is one of the world’s largest contraband trades, netting an estimated $19 billion a year, not including illegal fisheries and timber. While all Southeast Asian countries and many others outside of the region are involved, Vietnam plays a paramount role. The country is a major thoroughfare for wildlife goods bound for China, which arrive overland from Cambodia, Thailand and Laos; by ship from Malaysia and Indonesia; or by air from Africa.
“After China, Vietnam is the next port of call in terms of where to look to figure out what’s going on with wildlife trade,” said Dan Challender, a co-chairman of the pangolin specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Vietnam is also a significant consumer of wildlife, especially those yielding the ingredients for traditional medicine, such as rhino horn, which is used to treat everything from cancer to hangovers. The exotic meats of rare animals are seen as luxuries by a rising middle class eager to advertise its prosperity.
“Pangolin is frequently the most expensive item on the menu, so ordering it is an obvious way to show off to friends and colleagues,” Dr. Challender said. “The fact that it’s illegal isn’t played down and is even attractive, because it adds this element that you live beyond the law.”
International concern about the trade has never been greater, but conferences, new enforcement strategies and ivory crushes have yet to make a dent.
In February, the Obama administration issued a plan to curb illegal wildlife trade by strengthening enforcement, reducing demand and sending a handful of agents abroad. The United States is the second-largest market for illegal wildlife products, but only an estimated 10 percent of traffickers are caught because of inadequate resources supporting enforcement, as well as legal loopholes pertaining to certain products, such as ivory.
“Wildlife trade is higher profile now than it’s ever been, and that’s great,” said Chris Shepherd, regional director in Southeast Asia of Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network. “But all of the talk about this issue by world leaders is not trickling down to the ground yet.”
In January of this year, officials intercepted more than 7,500 protected pig-nosed turtles in Indonesia, a frozen tiger in Vietnam and 190 endangered black pond turtles in Singapore. As wildlife disappears in Southeast Asia, poachers increasingly turn to Africa.
More than 1,500 pounds of ivory and two tons of pangolin skins were intercepted in Uganda in January. Last year in South Africa alone, a record 1,215 rhinos were killed for their horns.
The illegal wildlife products that officials manage to interdict account for an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the total trafficked.
“We may be disrupting criminal networks, but we’re certainly not dismantling any of them,” said Scott Roberton, Vietnam country representative and regional coordinator for wildlife trafficking programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “The situation is going to get worse before it gets better.”
While China recently increased its arrests and prosecutions for wildlife crimes, those caught trafficking wildlife in Vietnam or other transit countries almost always escape punishment. Dealing in protected species is a criminal offense under Vietnamese law, as is selling wild-caught animals of any kind.
But even when trafficking kingpins are taken into custody, prosecution often depends on finding unrelated charges that are taken more seriously than wildlife crime, such as car smuggling. Poachers like Mr. Luc — who says he has never run into legal trouble — are rarely reprimanded, and punishment, if any, usually entails a small fine.
“Very few criminals caught for major violations like tiger or rhino horn possession ever do a day in prison,” said Douglas Hendrie, chief technical adviser for Education for Nature-Vietnam, a nonprofit organization based in Vietnam.
Wild-caught and protected animal products are easily procured in Vietnamese cities. “It’s not an enforcement priority yet, largely due to corruption, collusion and an absolute lack of concern,” Dr. Shepherd said. “People just do not care.”
Thien Vuong Tuu (“The Alcohol of the Gods”), a fancy restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, advertises pangolin, bear, porcupine, bat and more on its illustrated menu. Customers interested in pangolin — sold for $150 a pound — must order it two to three hours in advance and place a deposit based on its weight.
When the customer returns for dinner, the manager presents the live pangolin to the table, then slices its throat on the spot to prove that the meat is fresh and has not been substituted.
“Pangolin is very popular with customers, because it treats a lot of sicknesses,” said Quoc Trung, the restaurant manager. His staff will also dry and package pangolin scales left over from dinner — a popular ingredient in traditional medicines that are still covered by Vietnamese health insurance.
On a Sunday night, families with young children and groups of middle-aged men fill the restaurant. At one table, two French-speaking men order a cobra to the delight of their female companions. Two young servers bring out a large, writhing snake, its mouth bound tightly shut with plastic twine.
As the customers film with their smartphones, one server holds the snake taut. The other carefully feels along the animal’s abdomen until he locates the heart, then opens it up with a pair of scissors and removes the beating organ with his bare fingers.
As the servers wring out the animal, the blood drips into a ceramic bowl to be mixed later with alcohol and drunk.
“The government doesn’t allow exotic meat, but we have our sources and good connections with the police,” Mr. Quoc said after the show concluded. “The demand is so high for these things, so we have to supply them.”
Given the widespread lack of enforcement, grass-roots conservation organizations in Vietnam increasingly find themselves on the front lines. Education for Nature-Vietnam recently conducted a survey of restaurants, hotels and shops in 12 districts in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, recording each violation of wildlife laws and insisting that authorities follow up.
Several months later, the group repeated the survey and found the availability of illegal products ranging from snake “wine” to bear bile had fallen by nearly 60 percent in eight of the districts. “When authorities put us out of work by doing their job effectively and consistently, then we’ll no longer have to do this,” Mr. Hendrie said.
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, a nonprofit based at Cuc Phuong National Park, organizes training sessions across the country for park rangers and the police, conducts community education programs and operates one of the country’s only rehabilitation centers for confiscated animals.
In Vietnam, much of the wildlife intercepted from illegal traders is sold by officials back into the black market. Nguyen Van Thain, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife’s founder, often must race to the sites of recent confiscations to try to recover animals before that can happen.
“Corrupt rangers still want to sell animals back to the trade,” Mr. Nguyen said. Even if the animals are not sold, very few return to the wild, because of a lack of rehabilitation facilities.
Animals not sent to a specialized rescue center often “just sit around until they die,” Dr. Shepherd said.
Over the last three months, Mr. Nguyen has helped rescue 20 pangolins, but the maximum capacity at his center — one of only two in Vietnam that can care for pangolins — is less than 50. With a budget of just $90,000 a year, he has few resources with which to expand the center and hire additional staff.
Mr. Nguyen says he is not confident that attitudes will change in time to spare his country’s wildlife.
“The problem in Vietnam is that conservation is a new way of thinking,” he said. “Vietnamese people need to learn to take seriously what we have now. We need to take care of our own environment and wildlife if we want it to be around in the future.”