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  National Geographic 13 Sep 06
Vietnam Becoming Asia's Illegal Animal "Supermarket," Experts Warn
Maryann Mott

Yahoo News 14 Aug 06
Illegal wildlife trade takes heavy toll in Vietnam

by Frank Zeller

HANOI (AFP) - Snarling inside a cage and licking its wounds, a clouded leopard is recovering from being wire-trapped by poachers.

The jungle feline is one lucky cat. It was rescued last month when Vietnamese guards surprised a trafficker carrying the sedated animal near the Chinese border.

But while the 18-kilogram (40-pound) female is now recuperating in an animal rescue centre, alongside black bears, gibbons and other rare species, many more wild animals end up in restaurants, traditional pharmacies and souvenir shops.

Southeast Asia's forests, a biological treasure trove, have become a gold mine for wildlife traffickers, say ecologists. And Vietnam has become a major Asian crossroads, with animals being smuggled from Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia and as far as India for sale here and for export to China, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

"This clouded leopard could have earned the smugglers 70 million dong (4,300 dollars)," said Nguyen Van Nhung, a veterinarian at the Hanoi Wild Animal Rescue Centre. "Its meat would have been eaten and its bones ground up for medicine," he said, pointing at the animal now pacing in its metal cage. "People believe it makes them stronger."

In the decade since the centre opened it has only received one other clouded leopard, said director Ngo Ba Oanh, which may be testimony to the heavy toll the trade has taken on Vietnam's natural environment.

"The cases that are picked up are the tip of the iceberg," said Eric Coull, Greater Mekong representative of conservation group WWF.

Over-exploitation for the illegal wildlife trade now rivals habitat destruction as a major threat to the survival of many species, he said.

"Nowhere is this more evident than in Vietnam, where wildlife populations are dwindling at an alarming rate due to illegal trade and consumption."

The animals at the rescue centre are a cross-section of the species being slowly wiped out. There are gibbons found in a Hanoi cafe, black bears confiscated as cubs near the Lao border, and macaques from the Mekong delta.

Dr Nguyen Van Song of the Hanoi Agricultural University estimates 3,000 tonnes of wildlife and wildlife products are shipped in and out of Vietnam every year, with only about three percent intercepted.

Half of the trade is for domestic consumption, the other half for export, he said in a report, mainly through the Chinese border crossings at Lang Son and Mong Cai, the area where the clouded leopard was found.

Song believes up to 3,500 kilograms of illegal wildlife goods pass through these border towns daily, including pangolins, lizards, turtles, cobras, pythons, monkeys, bears and tigers.

Smugglers have used ambulances, wedding cars and funeral hearses to smuggle the contraband, or hired foot porters through middlemen so they cannot reveal their bosses' identities if caught. Permits and licenses are sometimes forged, and customs officials threatened or bribed,

Song wrote, blaming "influential people", a euphemism for organised crime.

Like people elsewhere in East Asia, Vietnamese often express pride in their adventurous culinary tastes. A popular saying in the region goes: "We can eat anything with four feet except the table. We can eat anything in the ocean except submarines. We can eat anything in the sky except planes."

Some wild animals are killed for their skins, to be stuffed or to make trinkets from tiger and bear teeth, ivory or turtle shell. Others end up in illegal private zoos. But three quarters die to be consumed, said Song.

Wildlife meat, and the wines and medicines made from it, have traditionally been believed to have healing and tonic properties in many Asian cultures. "Many Vietnamese people believe that consuming wildlife products promotes good physical health, often paying exorbitant prices for products and meats derived from endangered species," said another WWF official.

Sulma Warne of wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said he recently learnt of a case where a group of men paid thousands of dollars to commission a tiger, which was killed in Myanmar, dissected and smuggled in parts to Vietnam.

"It's a status symbol," Warne said. "The fact that you can get tiger meat shows you have money. It's illegal, it's difficult to get. It's like caviar."

A recent survey by WWF and TRAFFIC found that nearly half of Hanoi's residents had personally used wildlife products, a trend the groups plan to tackle with a public awareness campaign being launched later this month.

In Ho Chi Minh City, a survey of 1,600 restaurants by the group Wild Animal Rescue found 15 wild species on the menu, among them deer, snake and turtle. "Vietnam is getting richer, but people also believe in ancient medicine and showing off their wealth and power by eating these endangered species," said Edwin Wiek of the Indonesia-based Borneo Orangutan Survival foundation.

"Vietnam is definitely a very big player in this market, unfortunately. It is a consumer as much as a transfer point."

Wiek has long monitored the trade, especially in primates, and recently returned two orangutans to Indonesia from an illegal hotel zoo near Ho Chi Minh City that also kept 70 bears, a tiger, monkeys and exotic birds.

"For some people, having a Ferrari outside their front door is not enough," said Wiek. "You have to have a chimpanzee or an orangutan in your backyard as well. Then you're really the man."

Rainforest species

Over the past decade, biologists have been stunned to find that Vietnam, shut off for decades by war and politics, has rainforests far more species-diverse than previously known.

In 1992, researchers here discovered the saola, the world's largest new mammal found in over half a century. The forest-dwelling ox was not just a new species but also a new genus.

Since then a one-horned rhinoceros thought extinct in mainland Asia was rediscovered and biologists found three new deer species, 63 vertebrates and 45 unknown fish, says the recently-published 'Vietnam: A Natural History'.

Yet scientists are racing against time to catalogue the new animals before they are gone. Many of Vietnam's wild areas have become denuded habitats, sometimes dubbed "empty forests."

More than 300 animal species have disappeared and over 100 are threatened. With virgin rainforests now reduced to a patchwork, fewer than 100 tigers, 100 wild elephants and 10 rhinos are believed to survive in the wild in Vietnam, their gene pools already too small to ensure their survival here.

Vietnam banned hunting without a permit in 1975 and has signed several treaties, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Yet enforcement is often weak, Song said, and the estimated profit of the illegal wildlife trade 30 times larger than state spending to combat it. As long as demand grows, experts agree, the illegal trade will grow and continue to threaten the biological heritage of Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

"Vietnam has become famous over the past 15 years for the discovery of new species," said the WWF's Coull. "It could become famous for their extinction."

National Geographic 13 Sep 06
Vietnam Becoming Asia's Illegal Animal "Supermarket," Experts Warn
Maryann Mott

"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.

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. 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.

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."

Related articles on Global biodiversity and Wildlife trade
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