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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 highway, we have to yield the road to a Every now and then Bouvery gazes out
day in Lam Dong Province, and as I steer massive truck hauling thick trunks of lumber. at the surrounding landscape, where forest
my motorbike around a bend on Highway Just a few hundred metres ahead, Bouvery cover has been converted to plantations.
20 just past Madagui town, the four hours asks me to pull over so he can take a photo “Coffee, cashew, paper, rubber, tea—these
I’ve spent on the road finally pay off. The of a mountainside across the valley, where a are the main killers of forest,” Bouvery told
lanes narrow and plunge suddenly into large swath of land is barren and burnt. me earlier in the day. At one point, he stops
a mountain corridor draped with verdant We spend the remainder of the afternoon me and points at the tangle of jungle brush
jungle flora. I let up on the accelerator and touring two pilot sites with a pair of Ma mi- around our ankles; hundreds of insects hop
take in the veil of foliage that cascades nority men from a nearby village who over- at our feet in a circus of activity. He motions
down the mountainsides. see the project, a joint venture of Touton, for me to listen to the sound of bird calls in
Two hours later and a few kilometres Winrock, the World Fund for Nature (WWF) the canopy.
down the road, the picture is very different. and local authorities. Bouvery assesses the “You can see there are still a lot of birds,
I have joined Francois Bouvery, who is size and health of the cocoa plants that a lot of life,” says Bouvery. Then, he points
taking me to see a sustainable agro-forestry grow beneath the preserved forest canopy, through a break in the tree line, at yet
project in the surrounding mountains that asking about a few sickly looking trees and another swath of burnt earth that mars the
his company, Touton SA-France, buys reminding them that the price of cocoa mountainside on the horizon. “You go over
cocoa from. Shortly after pulling off the remains high on the commodities market. there … nothing.”

18 asialife HCMC
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 a 2001 review on the state of the envi- threatened with extinction (see “Save Our
In the last 60 years, Vietnam’s landscape has ronment, the Vietnam Environment Adminis- Species,” page 24), and unfortunately, there
changed dramatically. Rampant habitat loss tration (VEA) pointed particularly to “selective are indicators that more species will be lost.
has fragmented populations of the country’s cutting for timber exploitation and clear cut-
more than 1,500 species of amphibians, ting for reclaiming land for agriculture” from Tiger, Tiger Burning Out
birds, mammals and reptiles and made them 1954 to 1986 by state agriculture agencies, The day after touring the Madagui agro-for-
extraordinarily susceptible to today’s largest which it says conducted little planning or estry site, I drive south to Cat Tien National
threat: the wildlife trade. surveying. Within that period, Vietnam also Park, back through Tan Phu. Tet is still two
Population pressure is certainly one part lost more than 2 million hectares of land to weeks away, but already the world’s largest
of the problem. According to the Population the American War. feline is being reproduced in anticipation of
Reference Bureau, Vietnam’s population By 1991, there were 412 state forest the Year of the Tiger—on product packag-
grew from about 27 million people in 1950 enterprises logging the country’s forests. ing, municipal banners, Mobifone cards. It
to more than 85 million in mid-2007, with Logging rates peaked at 1.2 million cubic seems everywhere you look are the iconic
population density increasing from 83 people metres of timber in 1992, the same year black and orange stripes.
per square kilometre to 257. By comparison, the government made a sharp about face, Everywhere, that is, but where it matters
population density in mid-2007 was 128 reducing quotas by 88 percent before ban- most: in the wild.
people per square kilometre in Thailand, ning the trade in timber outright in 1993. Earlier this year, the WWF released Tigers
79 in Cambodia, 74 in Myanmar and 25 in The legacies of the pre-90s era, says the on the Brink, a special report that issues a
Laos. VEA assessment, are “the large barren land stern warning backed by dire statistics. Ac-
This rapid population growth has paral- areas throughout the country, soil erosion cording to the report, there are possibly as
leled another trend: the transition from and landslides, drying up of water resources few as 350 Indochinese tigers remaining in
community-based management of forests, and floods.” the sub-region (down from 1,227 to 1,778 in
often by minority groups like the Ma, to top- Vietnam’s flora has not been the only 1998) and their habitat has been reduced by
down governance. Beginning in the 1950s, inheritor of this legacy. In 1998, the Forest more than 45 percent over the course of the
this lead to widespread conversion of land Protection Department reported that 200 last decade.
for agricultural expansion and logging in species of bird and 120 other animals had Long ago forced out of prime hunting
both fertile lowlands and the more rugged, been wiped out over the last four decades. grounds in lowland flood plains by human
forested highlands. Today, there are about 100 more species development, the Indochinese tiger is now

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

believed to reside in suboptimal habitats in any other country. The second largest a problem, what some researchers believe
like closed forests and infertile plains. Re- market, the United States, has seen demand is the larger issue is the imbalance be-
establishing their range is the benchmark grow from USD $1.2 billion to $2.8 billion tween profits from the wildlife trade and the
strategy of an ambitious goal to achieve between 2000 and 2007, according to an resources available to provincial authorities
population recovery by the next Year of the annual report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Protection Department (FPD)
Tiger in 2022. Service. to tackle poaching and trafficking.
Vietnam is part of that plan, with the In this climate, biodiversity-rich countries From 1997 to 2000, profits from the
Lower Mekong Dry Forests Ecoregion like Vietnam that lack the capacity to fight wildlife trade in Vietnam equaled USD $67
and Southern-Central Annamites already traffickers have become prime targets. Com- million, while authorities raised only $21
identified as global priority tiger landscapes. pounding the problem is the sharp rise in million in fines in the same period. Song’s
But with hunting still occurring in Vietnam’s domestic demand for wildlife products and research also revealed that the average FPD
protected areas, the question is whether pets in recent years. employee’s monthly pay is roughly equivalent
Vietnam has the capacity to protect a new In his 2008 paper, Wildlife Trading in to daily profits at restaurants serving illegal
population of Indochinese tigers. Vietnam: Situations, Causes, and Solutions, wildlife. For this wage, the average FPD
Nguyen Van Song of the Hanoi University of staffer is responsible for 1,400 hectares of
Deadly Ground Agriculture explained how a highly orga- forest, estimates Song.
In 1994, Vietnam acceded to the Convention nized network of wildlife traders is able to Wildlife traders don’t only outspend au-
on International Trade in Endangered Spe- flourish. By going undercover, Song and his thorities; they also have them outgunned.
cies of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While interviewers identified nine channels that In recent years, encounters with poachers
the treaty to end the illegal wildlife trade link hunters to consumers and a variety of and illegal loggers have turned lethal. In No-
has provided guidelines to bring domestic methods for evading authorities, from hiding vember 2005, one ranger was killed and an-
laws in line with international standards, it protected species among shipments of legal other injured in Haiphong when the minibus
perhaps came too late. wildlife trade to offering “secret” menus at they were inspecting drove off at high speed
Vietnam’s commitments to conservation restaurants. with the two on top. And just last October, a
have coincided with a dramatic surge in the The report also belies the assumption that forest ranger was beaten to death by three
global wildlife trade. In China, demand for wildlife enforcement failures have everything illegal loggers in his custody.
wildlife products and exotic pets has driven to do with corruption. While numerous But even if tomorrow rangers were given
the multi-billion dollar global trade more than reports have proved that corruption remains 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 candidate, which would be a young cub that to be able to enforce the international laws,”
would they do with the thousands of animals hasn’t been kept for a long time in captivity says Hunt. “The legislation is now in place.
that such a campaign would turn up? and has been recently captured from the The monitoring is starting. The sanctuaries
wild.” for placement of bears are being built. So
Sanctuary Given the conditions in which most bears the stars are finally lining up to enable proper
While waiting for an afternoon interview at are kept, suitable candidates are rare. enforcement of international laws.”
Cat Tien, I visit the one-hectare bear enclo- This means that most bears have re- This spring, Free the Bears and Wildlife
sure built by Free the Bears. At first the five mained in the custody of ostensibly reformed at Risk will open a new sanctuary with the
Asiatic black bears are elusive, but eventu- bear bile farmers. And although the govern- capacity to hold 60 bears in Kien Giang
ally, they wander out, their tussled black ment has microchipped captives to prevent Province near the Gulf of Thailand. The plan
manes swaying as they slouch towards the trafficking and distinguish them from new is to fund the sanctuary in the long term with
bathing pool just below the viewing station. wild captures, many fear that bile extraction ecotourism profits, a model Hunt would like
From here, it looks as though they don’t continues. to implement in other parts of Vietnam where
have a care in the world—which makes Two weeks prior to my visit to Cat Tien, the opportunity arises. That opportunity,
them some of the luckier bears in Vietnam. the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Founda- however, is very much contingent upon the
The Asiatic black bear and sun bear tion (AAF) rescued 19 Asiatic black bears recovery of Vietnam’s forests and habitats.
perhaps better illustrate Vietnam’s shortfall from desperate conditions at a farm in Binh
in capacity than any other species. Fifteen Duong. The bears had been held for six to Where Worlds Meet
years ago, Vietnam reiterated its ban on bear seven years and were milked for bile regu- On the surface, it seems that Vietnam has
bile farming, the practice in which crude larly. A post-mortem examination revealed a made significant strides in increasing forest
surgical methods are used to drain bears’ euthanized bear was so ravaged by disease cover and habitat since reversing its poli-
gall bladders of bile, primarily for use in tra- that its organs were unrecognizable. cies in the 1990s. In its 2005 Global Forest
ditional Chinese medicine. But today, about AAF transported the bears to a sanctuary Resources Assessment, the United Nations
4,500 bears remain in captivity. in Tam Dao National Park, which opened in Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
The problem, says Matt Hunt, CEO of May 2009. Before sanctuaries such as this reported that from 2000 to 2005, Vietnam
international NGO Free the Bears, is that were built, Hunt says, enforcement wasn’t a experienced the third largest annual net gain
few captive bears can ever be released viable option; violators could be prosecuted, in forest area (241,000 hectares per year) of
back into the wild. “For rehabilitation to take but there was nowhere to place the bears. all nations surveyed.
place,” says Hunt, “you need a very suitable “Our job here is to enable the government However, without proper enforcement of

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

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