HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Animal Hell

The longer you live in a place, the more you learn about it, both good and bad. Usually when people move to a new country, particularly one as exotic as Vietnam, they overlook all of the negatives at first because everything is new, exciting and amazing. As you take in the culture over time you begin to notice problems facing the country, especially if you keep up with national news. Of course, there are expats who ignore all of this and live in a bubble of taxis, villas and swanky parties, but I'm not one of them, especially because I am part of the media.

I've explored many aspects of modern Vietnamese culture, and one of the issues I find most sickening is the way animals are treated here. This goes beyond the occasional roadside dog beating or cockfight you may come across, or the cages stuffed with birds of prey and rabbits along Nguyen Van Linh in District 7. While the complete disregard for the welfare of these animals is disconcerting, far more sinister is the ongoing systematic, horrifically effective eradication of Vietnam's rarest and most unique species. While similar problems are evident in many countries, Vietnam seems to excel when it comes to obliterating vitally important animals.

Vietnam was once home to an astonishing array of species, but this variety has been significantly decreased in recent years. A prime example is the Javan rhinoceros, which is possibly the rarest large mammal on earth. The species used to range from Indonesia to India, but by 2010 only two populations remained: one on Java, and one in Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park. In April of that year a dead Javan rhino was found in the park, killed by a poacher's rifle. The body was completely decomposed and its horn had been sawed off. After months of searching it was determined that that had been the last rhino in Vietnam. The management of Cat Tien completely failed to protect its rarest animal, yet no one has been punished for this terrible crime.

Another of Vietnam's troubled large mammals is the Asiatic elephant. As recently as the 1960's and 70's thousands of elephants roamed the country's jungles, but thanks to negligent development and a lack of control over poachers this population has been decimated. This New York Times article documents the sorry state of elephant conservation in Vietnam, and this year has been particularly pathetic. In August, the lone remaining male of a herd of 29 elephants in Yok Don National Park was butchered by poachers for its ivory tusks. Without a male, this herd will obviously no longer be able to reproduce, and will eventually die out completely. Five other males had already been killed this year before this latest tragedy.

It is difficult for Westerners to comprehend the ferocity of the demand for ivory, but in traditional Chinese medicine it is an extremely important ingredient. This type of medicine is still widely practiced in China, and to a lesser extent in Vietnam, and it drives the demand for ivory, which is taken from poached elephants and rhinos. In Beijing a pound of ivory can cost as much as $1,000. Here in Vietnam, a bizarre case was exposed last week, in which a banker in the Mekong Delta had a rhino horn worth 4 billion VND ($190,000) stolen from his villa, but didn't report the theft to police. It is the dream of money like this that is fueling the global elephant massacre currently taking place, as reported in harrowing detail here. Thanks to this ivory trade the future of elephants in Vietnam appears to have already been written: there won't be any left in a few years.

While the rhino and elephant slayings discussed above received a large amount of international coverage, they are far from the only recent crimes against the animal kingdom. Last month a Siamese crocodile, likely the last in the country, was found strangled to death in central Vietnam. No one has been punished for killing a member of a species that has just 100 remaining crocodiles in the world.

Last week a gayal, which is similar to a water buffalo, was stabbed to death in a savage attack by a group of villagers in Cat Tien National Park. The animal was butchered, and its meat was sold to other people in the area. The gayal is officially an endangered species that is facing a high risk of extinction.

It seems that every week there is another horror story involving animals being killed or smuggled, and it doesn't take long to realize how active the illegal animal trade is here. Last month police found four live tiger cubs and 119 pangolins, a rare species similar to an anteater, in the trunk of a car. The article did not say whether the pangolins were dead or alive. Such stories are depressingly common, and the people responsible for this smuggling are almost never punished.

This may lead you to wonder: what is the Vietnamese government doing about this? Shouldn't they be helping to protect the country's animals, which would also help protect the country's image? Sadly they seem to be doing the exact opposite of helping. This week Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based conservation group that runs a bear sanctuary near Hanoi, was told by the Ministry of Defence that it will have to shut down the sanctuary and relocate the 104 bears living there. The given reason being that the area is supposedly one of "national defence significance." All of the bears in question were rescued from bear bile farms, another industry fueled by Chinese traditional medicine that leaves bears in unspeakable living conditions. Animals Asia has come out fighting, arguing that moving the bears, who were already traumatized earlier in their lives, won't survive another disruption. It remains to be seen what will happen.

In another dubious move by the government, a decree set to go into affect on November 11 will legalize the commercial trading of 160 non-threatened species. Conservation experts have blasted the decision, rightfully arguing that most hunters and traders don't know the difference between rare and non-rare species, meaning they will go after nearly everything in the belief that it is now legal. Of course, as already discussed, even animals that can't be legally hunted or traded are regularly targeted, and little is done to stop this from happening.

Thanks to this lack of protection from the government, and the prevalence of the wildlife trade, Vietnam was ranked the worst of 23 Asian and African countries in terms of wildlife crime by the World Wildlife Foundation in a report focused on the conservation of rhinos, tigers and elephants. Tigers are another of Vietnam's prized animal species, and it is estimated that there are only 30 left in the wild, down from 100 just a decade ago. Tiger parts are also widely used in certain types of traditional medicine, and habitat loss is playing a key role in their disappearance as well. UPDATE: In the two hours since I posted this, yet another gruesome animal story has come to light: two men were caught carrying a dead adult tiger in a car in Hanoi. Its head had been cut off from the body. One of the men fled, and has not been captured. Disgusting. (Warning: that link includes graphic pictures.)

As Vietnam's economy continues to grow and development spreads ever deeper into the country's formerly untouched wilderness, the pressure placed on species such as the ones discussed here will only grow. The government needs to act soon, and not in ways that are counterproductive to conservation. A pronounced lack of public awareness of the plight of animals doesn't help matters, and it seems that certain Vietnamese think of animals as a type of currency, not living and breathing beings.

Members of the younger generations do recognize the problem, but they face resistance from vested interests. Illustrative of this is a story a friend related from one of his classes: a teenage boy said he wants to work in animal conservation when he is older. "That's great," my friend said, "we need more people like you." "Yes," the student replied, "but my dad says that it isn't a real job, so I will study business instead." If attitudes like that aren't changed, there won't even be any animals left to conserve. 


  1. Is there really even any scientific proof that the ingredients used from slaying these endangered animals can actually do what they're believed to do? For example, does bear bile actually help fight fevers? Does tiger bone actually help relieve arthritis pain, or is that all just superstition?

    I know some people will want to murder me for saying this, but it seems like quite a bit of traditional Chinese medicine is mostly just superstitious and doesn't actually undergo any true scientific research. I find myself very skeptical towards it.

    The point I'm trying to make is if all of these animals are being killed to create medicines that don't actually do what they're intended to do, well that would make the killing of all these animals even more senseless and cruel than it already is.

    1. I haven't done much research on the issue, but from what I have read the health benefits of using bear bile or tiger bone, along with all of the other animal-related remedies, are minimal to non-existent. The belief that they work seems to rest on superstition, as you said, and centuries of tradition that will be hard to break, even with hard evidence.

      My old editor at the magazine I work for did a story on keratin, which is found in rhino horns and is either snorted or mixed with water and drank. People believe it is a hangover cure that helps prevent cancer, but the scientific evidence he found said it basically does nothing. Keratin is also found in our fingernails, and I remember one scientist quoted saying it would be much better if people just chewed their nails instead of killing rhinos.

  2. Hey I really enjoyed reading this. I wrote something similar (though less ballsy) in an article a few weeks ago, Check it out http://hcmclife.com/only-in-our-wildest-dreams/

    1. I think I saw this article linked on Twitter actually, nicely written! I didn't know about the crocodile lake in Cat Tien - that's great news!

  3. Well written article mate. Really brings to light to the situation here. Just wholly depressing really. Cheers

    1. Thanks, glad you liked it. Depressing indeed.

  4. Agree wholeheartedly. I've given some thought myself to the issue. I don't think it matters at all what foreigners think because Vietnam keeps showing that it doesn't really care about the opinions of others. What matters is changing the minds of actual Vietnamese people and that needs to be done in Vietnamese. Having this blog post translated would be a good start!

    1. That's an interesting idea - though even if I had it translated I'm not sure where the best place to publish it would be.