Wildlife in

Vietnam is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, but it has also suffered from decades of deforestation and habitat loss and remains a hot spot for wildlife trade. Today, conservationists face an uphill battle to save Vietnam’s beleaguered wildlife. By Tom DiChristopher.
t is mid-afternoon on a warm, sunny day in Lam Dong Province, and as I steer my motorbike around a bend on Highway 20 just past Madagui town, the four hours I’ve spent on the road finally pay off. The lanes narrow and plunge suddenly into a mountain corridor draped with verdant jungle flora. I let up on the accelerator and take in the veil of foliage that cascades down the mountainsides. Two hours later and a few kilometres down the road, the picture is very different. I have joined Francois Bouvery, who is taking me to see a sustainable agro-forestry project in the surrounding mountains that his company, Touton SA-France, buys cocoa from. Shortly after pulling off the
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highway, we have to yield the road to a massive truck hauling thick trunks of lumber. Just a few hundred metres ahead, Bouvery asks me to pull over so he can take a photo of a mountainside across the valley, where a large swath of land is barren and burnt. We spend the remainder of the afternoon touring two pilot sites with a pair of Ma minority men from a nearby village who oversee the project, a joint venture of Touton, Winrock, the World Fund for Nature (WWF) and local authorities. Bouvery assesses the size and health of the cocoa plants that grow beneath the preserved forest canopy, asking about a few sickly looking trees and reminding them that the price of cocoa remains high on the commodities market.

Every now and then Bouvery gazes out at the surrounding landscape, where forest cover has been converted to plantations. “Coffee, cashew, paper, rubber, tea—these are the main killers of forest,” Bouvery told me earlier in the day. At one point, he stops me and points at the tangle of jungle brush around our ankles; hundreds of insects hop at our feet in a circus of activity. He motions for me to listen to the sound of bird calls in the canopy. “You can see there are still a lot of birds, a lot of life,” says Bouvery. Then, he points through a break in the tree line, at yet another swath of burnt earth that mars the mountainside on the horizon. “You go over there … nothing.”

There are possibly as few as 350 Indochinese tigers remaining in the sub-region, and their habitat has been reduced by more than 45 percent over the course of the last decade
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Setting the Stage In the last 60 years, Vietnam’s landscape has changed dramatically. Rampant habitat loss has fragmented populations of the country’s more than 1,500 species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles and made them extraordinarily susceptible to today’s largest threat: the wildlife trade. Population pressure is certainly one part of the problem. According to the Population Reference Bureau, Vietnam’s population grew from about 27 million people in 1950 to more than 85 million in mid-2007, with population density increasing from 83 people per square kilometre to 257. By comparison, population density in mid-2007 was 128 people per square kilometre in Thailand, 79 in Cambodia, 74 in Myanmar and 25 in Laos. This rapid population growth has paralleled another trend: the transition from community-based management of forests, often by minority groups like the Ma, to topdown governance. Beginning in the 1950s, this lead to widespread conversion of land for agricultural expansion and logging in both fertile lowlands and the more rugged, forested highlands.
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In a 2001 review on the state of the environment, the Vietnam Environment Administration (VEA) pointed particularly to “selective cutting for timber exploitation and clear cutting for reclaiming land for agriculture” from 1954 to 1986 by state agriculture agencies, which it says conducted little planning or surveying. Within that period, Vietnam also lost more than 2 million hectares of land to the American War. By 1991, there were 412 state forest enterprises logging the country’s forests. Logging rates peaked at 1.2 million cubic metres of timber in 1992, the same year the government made a sharp about face, reducing quotas by 88 percent before banning the trade in timber outright in 1993. The legacies of the pre-90s era, says the VEA assessment, are “the large barren land areas throughout the country, soil erosion and landslides, drying up of water resources and floods.” Vietnam’s flora has not been the only inheritor of this legacy. In 1998, the Forest Protection Department reported that 200 species of bird and 120 other animals had been wiped out over the last four decades. Today, there are about 100 more species

threatened with extinction (see “Save Our Species,” page 24), and unfortunately, there are indicators that more species will be lost. Tiger, Tiger Burning Out The day after touring the Madagui agro-forestry site, I drive south to Cat Tien National Park, back through Tan Phu. Tet is still two weeks away, but already the world’s largest feline is being reproduced in anticipation of the Year of the Tiger—on product packaging, municipal banners, Mobifone cards. It seems everywhere you look are the iconic black and orange stripes. Everywhere, that is, but where it matters most: in the wild. Earlier this year, the WWF released Tigers on the Brink, a special report that issues a stern warning backed by dire statistics. According to the report, there are possibly as few as 350 Indochinese tigers remaining in the sub-region (down from 1,227 to 1,778 in 1998) and their habitat has been reduced by more than 45 percent over the course of the last decade. Long ago forced out of prime hunting grounds in lowland flood plains by human development, the Indochinese tiger is now

Where there is opportunity in the environment, humans and animals will clash

believed to reside in suboptimal habitats like closed forests and infertile plains. Reestablishing their range is the benchmark strategy of an ambitious goal to achieve population recovery by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022. Vietnam is part of that plan, with the Lower Mekong Dry Forests Ecoregion and Southern-Central Annamites already identified as global priority tiger landscapes. But with hunting still occurring in Vietnam’s protected areas, the question is whether Vietnam has the capacity to protect a new population of Indochinese tigers. Deadly Ground In 1994, Vietnam acceded to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While the treaty to end the illegal wildlife trade has provided guidelines to bring domestic laws in line with international standards, it perhaps came too late. Vietnam’s commitments to conservation have coincided with a dramatic surge in the global wildlife trade. In China, demand for wildlife products and exotic pets has driven the multi-billion dollar global trade more than

in any other country. The second largest market, the United States, has seen demand grow from USD $1.2 billion to $2.8 billion between 2000 and 2007, according to an annual report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In this climate, biodiversity-rich countries like Vietnam that lack the capacity to fight traffickers have become prime targets. Compounding the problem is the sharp rise in domestic demand for wildlife products and pets in recent years. In his 2008 paper, Wildlife Trading in Vietnam: Situations, Causes, and Solutions, Nguyen Van Song of the Hanoi University of Agriculture explained how a highly organized network of wildlife traders is able to flourish. By going undercover, Song and his interviewers identified nine channels that link hunters to consumers and a variety of methods for evading authorities, from hiding protected species among shipments of legal wildlife trade to offering “secret” menus at restaurants. The report also belies the assumption that wildlife enforcement failures have everything to do with corruption. While numerous reports have proved that corruption remains

a problem, what some researchers believe is the larger issue is the imbalance between profits from the wildlife trade and the resources available to provincial authorities and the Forest Protection Department (FPD) to tackle poaching and trafficking. From 1997 to 2000, profits from the wildlife trade in Vietnam equaled USD $67 million, while authorities raised only $21 million in fines in the same period. Song’s research also revealed that the average FPD employee’s monthly pay is roughly equivalent to daily profits at restaurants serving illegal wildlife. For this wage, the average FPD staffer is responsible for 1,400 hectares of forest, estimates Song. Wildlife traders don’t only outspend authorities; they also have them outgunned. In recent years, encounters with poachers and illegal loggers have turned lethal. In November 2005, one ranger was killed and another injured in Haiphong when the minibus they were inspecting drove off at high speed with the two on top. And just last October, a forest ranger was beaten to death by three illegal loggers in his custody. But even if tomorrow rangers were given the means to tackle the wildlife trade head
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Without proper enforcement of laws, recovery of forest and habitat does not necessarily benefit wildlife

on, there remains another question: What would they do with the thousands of animals that such a campaign would turn up? Sanctuary While waiting for an afternoon interview at Cat Tien, I visit the one-hectare bear enclosure built by Free the Bears. At first the five Asiatic black bears are elusive, but eventually, they wander out, their tussled black manes swaying as they slouch towards the bathing pool just below the viewing station. From here, it looks as though they don’t have a care in the world—which makes them some of the luckier bears in Vietnam. The Asiatic black bear and sun bear perhaps better illustrate Vietnam’s shortfall in capacity than any other species. Fifteen years ago, Vietnam reiterated its ban on bear bile farming, the practice in which crude surgical methods are used to drain bears’ gall bladders of bile, primarily for use in traditional Chinese medicine. But today, about 4,500 bears remain in captivity. The problem, says Matt Hunt, CEO of international NGO Free the Bears, is that few captive bears can ever be released back into the wild. “For rehabilitation to take place,” says Hunt, “you need a very suitable
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candidate, which would be a young cub that hasn’t been kept for a long time in captivity and has been recently captured from the wild.” Given the conditions in which most bears are kept, suitable candidates are rare. This means that most bears have remained in the custody of ostensibly reformed bear bile farmers. And although the government has microchipped captives to prevent trafficking and distinguish them from new wild captures, many fear that bile extraction continues. Two weeks prior to my visit to Cat Tien, the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) rescued 19 Asiatic black bears from desperate conditions at a farm in Binh Duong. The bears had been held for six to seven years and were milked for bile regularly. A post-mortem examination revealed a euthanized bear was so ravaged by disease that its organs were unrecognizable. AAF transported the bears to a sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park, which opened in May 2009. Before sanctuaries such as this were built, Hunt says, enforcement wasn’t a viable option; violators could be prosecuted, but there was nowhere to place the bears. “Our job here is to enable the government

to be able to enforce the international laws,” says Hunt. “The legislation is now in place. The monitoring is starting. The sanctuaries for placement of bears are being built. So the stars are finally lining up to enable proper enforcement of international laws.” This spring, Free the Bears and Wildlife at Risk will open a new sanctuary with the capacity to hold 60 bears in Kien Giang Province near the Gulf of Thailand. The plan is to fund the sanctuary in the long term with ecotourism profits, a model Hunt would like to implement in other parts of Vietnam where the opportunity arises. That opportunity, however, is very much contingent upon the recovery of Vietnam’s forests and habitats. Where Worlds Meet On the surface, it seems that Vietnam has made significant strides in increasing forest cover and habitat since reversing its policies in the 1990s. In its 2005 Global Forest Resources Assessment, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that from 2000 to 2005, Vietnam experienced the third largest annual net gain in forest area (241,000 hectares per year) of all nations surveyed. However, without proper enforcement of

Despite their skill in evading the human eye, it’s becoming difficult for elephants to avoid human settlements
laws, recovery of forest and habitat does not necessarily benefit wildlife; recent history has proven that where there’s opportunity in the environment, humans and animals will clash. Matt Maltby of Fauna & Flora International has been tracking the migratory patterns of Asian elephants and studying their numbers along the Cambodia-Vietnam border for the past four years. In that time, he’s never seen an elephant in the wild, but in at least one sense, this is a good thing; their elusive nature helps elephants survive. Despite their skill in evading the human eye, it’s becoming difficult for elephants to avoid human settlements. Much of their prime habitat in the area Maltby studies— lowland scrublands and pristine primary forest—has been converted for agriculture or logged, leaving them to travel through secondary forests. The periphery of these forests is where many subsistence farmers eek out a living. To prevent the property damage that results from migratory traffic and sometimes leads to injury or death of elephants, Maltby and his Cambodian field team visit villages to advise on fence-building and crop diversification, but it’s time-intensive work. “Sometimes it takes up to one or two years to build the trust,” says Maltby. “And then word spreads around and then it gets easier to do.” Another concern is what Maltby calls the “rogue practices” of some plantation companies. In particular, he points out the clear-cutting of huge blocks of land, which can put humans and elephants on a collision course. “If the forest is fragmented, the elephants will still come back,” says Maltby, “so often biodiversity will lose against development.” This may be of particular concern in Vietnam; the FAO reported that the country experienced the fourth largest increase in productive forest plantation among the nations surveyed from 2000 to 2005. Maltby insists that his team is not against plantations, but says each site where agriculture and elephant migration intersect needs its own solution. This conclusion could be applied to many aspects of conservation. Deforestation, persecution of animals and opportunistic hunting of protected species occur in different areas for different reasons. What is becoming evident is that local circumstances need to be considered in order to create long-term change. Turning Back Time In Madagui, Francois Bouvery is happy with the cocoa yield. His company, Touton, recently bought their first shipment—130 kilos at market price, about $3,000 per ton. It’s not much, but it’s a promising start for the Ma village. Before we head back to our motorbikes, we stop by one more area. Our Ma guides want to show us an area that has benefited from the new irrigation system. Here, the cocoa trees are lush and healthy, and everyone gets together for a photo in front of a particularly fruitful arboreal specimen. Projects like this are just one small part of the overall solution, but on a symbolic level, it is a potent example of the potential to reverse the destructive trends of previous decades. That minority groups such as the Ma have become the stewards of forest management and habitat recovery seems to suggest the desire to return to an era of sustainable interaction between Vietnam’s people and its environment. Whether or not that proves possible is yet to be seen. For more information on the organizations discussed here, their programmes and how you can help, visit the editorial team’s blog at asialife.wordpress.com.
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