How Vietnam Learned to Stop Poaching and Love Its Beasts
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because time is running out.
When I lived in Da Nang five years ago, I’d often ride my Honda Wave out to the Son Tra Peninsula. Only five miles from the city center, I could follow narrow concrete Jeep tracks deep into pristine tropical forest that harbored more than 100 species of fauna, including an endangered and emblematic langur, the red-shanked douc. On a number of occasions I saw the monkeys, with their endearing red faces, white beards and maroon leggings, but I also saw — hidden in the undergrowth — the scooters of poachers and bird trappers.
For decades Vietnam has seemed indifferent to its wildlife. Vietnamese traditional medicine makes use of everything from bear bile to pangolin scales, and plenty of customers clamor after status symbols like ivory. What’s more, Vietnam is an important hub in the global network that supplies neighboring China, the world’s largest consumer of illegal wildlife products. But since my days in Da Nang, the country is finally starting to shake its reputation as a hot spot for poaching. Caring for animals has started to become cool.
In April, Nguyen Mau Chien, a rhino-trafficking kingpin, was arrested in Hanoi along with two accomplices after years of collaboration between governments and nongovernmental organizations in Africa and Asia. Even two years ago, experts say, such a takedown would never have been possible. “If you look at the situation on any given day, Vietnam seems a hell basket for conservation,” says Doug Hendrie, an American expat wildlife activist who has worked in Vietnam for 20 years. “But if you compare where we are now with where we were just 10 years ago, it seems like we’re living in a different country.”
Education for Nature Vietnam has expedited a [conservation] process that would have come with economic development anyway. But wildlife doesn’t have time to wait.
Doug Hendrie, wildlife activist
The seeds of the conservation movement starting to bloom in Vietnam were sown in 2000, when Education for Nature Vietnam was founded as the country’s first environmental NGO. Three years later, Nguyen Phuong Dung joined the organization, armed with a degree in foreign languages. Soon she was running a program focused on reducing consumer demand for wildlife products; in 2005, she set up a public hotline at a time when few Vietnamese knew what wildlife crime was, much less what to do if they witnessed one. “We would have a hard time even getting police to respond to reports of a live clouded leopard in a market,” Nguyen recalls.
Meanwhile, the rest of the ENV team worked with government to tighten legislation and with police to ensure that laws were enforced. ENV petitioned the government to remove bear bile from the list of medicines sanctioned by the national health insurance program and established outposts in 17 towns and cities around the country. Nguyen teamed up with influential celebrities to produce public service announcements that aired on TV and radio stations.
In the past two years, these conservation efforts have finally reached critical mass: Consumption of bear bile is down 61 percent, and calls to the hotline are up 200 percent. “ENV has expedited a process that would have come with economic development anyway,” says Hendrie. “But wildlife doesn’t have the time to wait.”
And what about my langurs in Da Nang? In 2013, the year after I left Vietnam, GreenViet, a small NGO founded by young primatologist Ha Thang Long, turned its attentions to the Son Tra Peninsula. “We were having a hard time protecting monkeys from poaching in the remote forests of central Vietnam,” says GreenViet communications officer Le Thi Trang. “So we thought we’d try a more urban environment.” The decision has paid off. By promoting the langur as an icon of Da Nang — not easy, given that monkeys are considered bad luck — GreenViet has managed to mobilize the residents to protect their new mascot. In the past four years, there have been only two poaching cases, though it seems unlikely that means the problem is nearly solved. Although the construction of luxury hotels on the peninsula threatens the langurs’ habitat, GreenViet is confident that living so close to a city could save the species from extinction.
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife focuses on protecting armadillo-like pangolins, whose scales are believed to augment breast milk, although no scientific evidence supports this folk belief. Since its inception in 2014, the NGO has conducted education programs with schoolchildren and law enforcement officers, worked with authorities on legislation, released nearly 400 pangolins back into the wild and opened Vietnam’s first pangolin and carnivore conservation and rescue center. Surveys conducted by SVW in conjunction with the Humane Society International show reduced consumption of pangolin meat in recent years and increases in the confiscation of illegally harvested pangolins.
One issue facing conservation in Vietnam is the disparity in motivation between wealthy cities and the underdeveloped countryside where poaching occurs. Some experts also cite an age split between progressive millennials and their more traditional elders. But if social pressure continues to reduce demand, coupled with a tightened border security, conservationists hope that poachers will soon have nowhere to sell their products. Even China seems to have seen the light — up to a point. Demand for ivory has been halved in the past four years, and Beijing has pledged to eliminate the ivory trade by the end of 2017.
Just before I left Vietnam, I rode out to Son Tra one last time. As I approached the headland of the peninsula, wind in my hair and sea air in my lungs, I was greeted by a barbed-wire fence across the road. Sitting on my bike, watching the yellow hard hats of construction workers swarm on the beach below, I was convinced that my children would never see a douc langur in what was left of the wild. Now, only five years later, I’m starting to think that maybe I was wrong.
* Correction: The length of time for reduced consumption of pangolin meat has been altered from the original version of this story.