By Mark Hay
On February 1, police in Vietnam rescued 42 endangered Sunda pangolins from poachers. On the surface, this seems like a nice thing for Vietnam to do. After all, we are talking about a country that just a few days ago came under fire for crushing hundreds of cats to death with a dump truck. Unfortunately, the cops gave the animals to forest rangers, who in turn sold them to local restaurants for pangolin stew, or whatever recipes call for endangered pholidota. The tragic irony and proximity of these events suggest that Vietnam has some serious, systemic flaws in the local government's approach toward animal rights and management of wildlife conservation.
Statements from local conservation group Education for Nature-Vietnam point out that not only will the light fines issued to the pangolin poachers and counterintuitive actions of the forest rangers fail to deter illegal wildlife trade in the country, but it makes the authorities tasked with animal protection an explicit link in the financial chain of demand for trafficked pangolins.
"Any violations regarding [pangolins\ should receive criminal punishment [and not just a cursory fine\," Thanh Nien News quoted EfN-V's Nguyen Thi Phuong Dung as saying. "We also can't treat [pangolins\ simply as evidence of a crime and then trade them."
Pangolins are small, little-known anteater-like creatures found in parts of Africa and Asia. A particularly odd species (one of ten Sir David Attenborough would put on his own personal ark) dating back 80 million years, they are the only mammals with scales. These toothless creatures have tongues longer than their bodies, which they use to eat 7 million ants and termites apiece a year , grinding them with special stones in their stomachs. They have a habit of hanging from trees by their prehensile tails and rolling into pill-bug-like balls for defense—hence their name, which comes from the Malay term pengguling: something that rolls up.
They are also incredibly endangered. Arguably the most poached mammal in the world (while simultaneously one of the least known poaching victims), more than a million have been captured and killed in the past decade. Due to a lack of study, we do not know how many pangolins are left in the wild, but thanks to trafficking and habitat loss we are fairly sure that the Chinese and Sunda (two of eight species) are critically endangered . And since they rarely survive in captivity and we're not sure how to get them to breed in the six zoos that manage to keep them, once they die out in the wild there's basically zero chance of rehabilitating a managed or wild population.
Most of the demand for pangolin is fueled by markets in China and Vietnam , which value their meat as a delicacy and scales as a cure-all medicine. Demand has decimated local populations, leading to imports of poached and smuggled pangolins, alive or dead, from Africa and Indonesia. In Vietnam in particular, a kilo of meat (the tongue makes a soup, the blood is drunk fresh as an aphrodisiac, babies are dropped into wine, and the remainder is steamed) sells for $250, and a kilo of scales will sell for up to $1,500. Demand is so high that within the first eight months of 2013 , officials found ten metric tons of pangolins in the northern port of Hai Phong alone (most weigh about 33 kilos as adults, meaning more than 300 pangolins were trafficked there). Then, in the summer of 2014, authorities uncovered a single shipment of 1.4 metric tons of scales alone , which adds up to as many as 3,000 pangolins . And those are only the cases they catch.
Most nations that deal with pangolin smuggling take it pretty seriously. In China, smugglers busted in stings can face up to ten years in jail for a first-time offense. Many nations with native populations, like Zimbabwe , also work with trusts and conservancies to rehabilitate rescued pangolins and release them back into the wild to help maintain their threatened populations.
Thanks to increased publicity about the animals (Britain's Prince William tried to raise awareness about them last November by getting pangolins featured in Angry Birds, for instance)—including work on pangolin protection PSAs by EfN-V —Vietnam has made moves in recent years to bring its conservation policies in line with international norms. Under Government Decree No. 160 , pangolins now enjoy protections status on par with elephants, rhinos, and tigers in Vietnam. And in fall of 2014, it seemed like officials might be pushing for cooperation between police and the nation's pangolin conservation program in Ninh Binh Province's Cuc Phuong Park , agreeing to turn over smuggled animals for rehabilitation and release.
"This [was\ the first time confiscated pangolins [had\ been transferred to the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program since 2010," Thanh Nien News quoted project head Luong Tat Huang as saying of the handover of several seized pangolins that fall. "This is considered as a positive signal for wildlife conservation in Vietnam."
Yet there does not appear to be much commitment to enforcement of the new, strengthened protections on the ground. Local conservationists believe that police do not actively investigate poachers , but only stumble upon them when rival traffickers snitch them out. They also claim that forest rangers tend to see the protection of trees rather than animals as their primary remit.
And it appears that news of policy shift toward protection and conservation didn't reach any of the (numerous) authorities involved in the recent pangolin smuggling incident. According to Thanh Nien News, Le Van Minh of the Bac Ninh Forest Management Department believed it was legal under 2006 regulations for authorities to sell and profit from seized pangolins. (Apparently the sale of smuggled, poached animals upon their seizure is not uncommon amongst Vietnamese officials .) Minh's decision was approved by the province's People's Committee and the animals were inspected by health officials and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to verify that they were (supposedly) beyond rehabilitation. This suggests that multiple layers of government knew of the forest rangers' intentions and signed off on them.
However according to Thanh Nien News , Hoang Thi Thanh Nahn , a senior official of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, reaffirmed that selling seized pangolins is no longer a valid practice. And the government has taken the money raised from the sale.
Although officially Vietnam is on the right track regarding poaching protection and pangolins, this is a pretty good and clear example of how things can go screwy between proclamations from on high and practices on the ground. Officers seem to be operating under old regulations, which fail to adequately punish those trafficking a critically endangered species and just feed the demand for and complete the financial chain of poaching. Hopefully the publicity of this case will help disseminate the new pangolin-related regulations. But one way or another, this latest incident, coupled with the recent cat crushing, just makes it clear that Vietnam seriously needs to get its shit straight, from official policy to on-the-ground implementation, with regard to animals.