By Rachel Nuwer
U MINH, Vietnam — Luc Van Ho slips through a tangled thicket of jungle, graceful as a dancer. A blanket of dried bamboo and melaleuca leaves on the forest floor barely crackles beneath his bare feet. Only the smell of cigarette smoke betrays his presence.
A hunter, Mr. Luc, 45, set out at dawn from his family’s bamboo-thatched home in Vietnam’s U Minh forest to check a half dozen homemade traps rigged along animal trails in the underbrush and on canal banks frequented by snakes and turtles.
He stops at a snare trap made of wood and bicycle brake wire, nearly invisible beneath leaves. The trap is empty, not unusual.
“Before, this forest was very different,” Mr. Luc said. “Now, the animals are so few that most hunters are changing their jobs.”
Still, in the previous two weeks, Mr. Luc had caught nine Southeast Asian box turtles and Malayan snail-eating turtles, five elephant trunk snakes, a handful of water birds and two rare Himalayan griffon vultures. For safekeeping, Mr. Luc stashed the vultures in his brother’s house, leaving them tethered in the bedroom until he can figure out what to do with them.
In the past, Mr. Luc’s hunting trips often yielded wildlife bonanzas, including prized pangolins. Also known as scaly anteaters, they are among the most trafficked mammals in the world. Mr. Luc works with traders willing to buy live pangolins for $60 a pound.
Although he caught just two pangolins last year, that price makes it well worth the effort to keep seeking them out. He knows, however, that this lucrative resource is finite.
“Pangolins will be extinct soon,” he said. Still, he expresses no plans to retire.
Mr. Luc is one of thousands of illegal hunters draining Vietnam, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, of its animals. Its rhinoceroses have already gone extinct, and conservationists estimate that just a couple of its tigers, if any, remain. Even lesser known species like soft-shell turtles and civets are sought out for traditional medicines, food, trophies and pets.
Illegal wildlife is one of the world’s largest contraband trades, netting an estimated $19 billion a year, not including illegal fisheries and timber. While all Southeast Asian countries and many others outside of the region are involved, Vietnam plays a paramount role. The country is a major thoroughfare for wildlife goods bound for China, which arrive overland from Cambodia, Thailand and Laos; by ship from Malaysia and Indonesia; or by air from Africa.
“After China, Vietnam is the next port of call in terms of where to look to figure out what’s going on with wildlife trade,” said Dan Challender, a co-chairman of the pangolin specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Vietnam is also a significant consumer of wildlife, especially those yielding the ingredients for traditional medicine, such as rhino horn, which is used to treat everything from cancer to hangovers. The exotic meats of rare animals are seen as luxuries by a rising middle class eager to advertise its prosperity.
“Pangolin is frequently the most expensive item on the menu, so ordering it is an obvious way to show off to friends and colleagues,” Dr. Challender said. “The fact that it’s illegal isn’t played down and is even attractive, because it adds this element that you live beyond the law.”
International concern about the trade has never been greater, but conferences, new enforcement strategies and ivory crushes have yet to make a dent.
In February, the Obama administration issued a plan to curb illegal wildlife trade by strengthening enforcement, reducing demand and sending a handful of agents abroad. The United States is the second-largest market for illegal wildlife products, but only an estimated 10 percent of traffickers are caught because of inadequate resources supporting enforcement, as well as legal loopholes pertaining to certain products, such as ivory.
“Wildlife trade is higher profile now than it’s ever been, and that’s great,” said Chris Shepherd, regional director in Southeast Asia of Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network. “But all of the talk about this issue by world leaders is not trickling down to the ground yet.”
In January of this year, officials intercepted more than 7,500 protected pig-nosed turtles in Indonesia, a frozen tiger in Vietnam and 190 endangered black pond turtles in Singapore. As wildlife disappears in Southeast Asia, poachers increasingly turn to Africa.
More than 1,500 pounds of ivory and two tons of pangolin skins were intercepted in Uganda in January. Last year in South Africa alone, a record 1,215 rhinos were killed for their horns.
The illegal wildlife products that officials manage to interdict account for an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the total trafficked.
“We may be disrupting criminal networks, but we’re certainly not dismantling any of them,” said Scott Roberton, Vietnam country representative and regional coordinator for wildlife trafficking programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “The situation is going to get worse before it gets better.”
While China recently increased its arrests and prosecutions for wildlife crimes, those caught trafficking wildlife in Vietnam or other transit countries almost always escape punishment. Dealing in protected species is a criminal offense under Vietnamese law, as is selling wild-caught animals of any kind. More....