A failure to treat poaching, wildlife trade as serious crimes is pushing tigers to extinction, experts warn
Skeletons of tiger and other wildlife species seized by Hanoi Environmental Police last week
Indochinese tiger once prowled Vietnam's forests in large numbers. Today, they are being pushed to the edge of extinction in a country that is now considered a transit hub for Big Cat products.
Conservation experts say that the root cause of the problem is that the Vietnamese government has not imposed stiff punishments for poaching and wildlife trade crimes.
"Illegal hunting of wild tigers and tiger prey species in Vietnam has been occurring at highly unsustainable levels for some time and is the main cause alongside habitat destruction, for the decimation of wild tiger populations in Vietnam," said Scott Roberton, Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Country Representative in Vietnam.
"Although Vietnam has increased its protected area coverage to 6.7 percent (2.2 million ha) the management of these areas is poor and is more focused on protecting the trees than the animals that live amongst them.
"There is inadequate investment for wildlife conservation, low capacity of the management authorities, poor collaboration with local stakeholders, and low incentives to protect wildlife," he said.
According to the conservation NGO, World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), the largest combined wild tiger habitat on earth is to be found in the forests of the Greater Mekong region covering 540,000 km2 in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. However, as few as 350 endangered Indochinese Tigers inhabit the region's forests, down from around 1,200 in 1998.
As few as 30 wild tigers are estimated to survive in Vietnam.
Despite this low number, an illegal wildlife trade, including tiger parts and products, has thrived in the country, despite myriad efforts to stop it.
Last week, police seized eight tiger skeletons, three panther heads, 560 gall bladders and more than 700 kilograms of wildlife parts in a raid on two houses in Hanoi. Six people involved were detained for violating laws on wildlife protection.
Jake Brunner, International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) program coordinator for Vietnam, urged stricter punishment against wildlife violators, saying that current measures are not sufficient deterrents.
"The Vietnamese government needs to impose serious penalties, meaning large fines and lengthy prison sentences, for on those who hunt, traffic, or consume tiger parts. At the moment these activities are not treated as serious crimes," he said.
"As a result, the demand continues to grow as more people can afford to buy exotic wildlife products."
A WCS study released last week identified 42 "source sites" scattered across Asia that should be prioritized in the fight to save tigers from extinction. These sites in Russia, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos give the world's remaining tiger populations a chance to recover, it said.
Meanwhile, the study found no evidence of breeding populations in Vietnam, Cambodia, China, or North Korea.
A WCS statement last week said fewer than 3,500 wild tigers inhabit a tiny fraction of their former habitat, clustered in small pockets of Asian forests.
"In the past, overly ambitious and complicated conservation efforts have failed to do the basics: prevent the hunting of tigers and their prey. With 70 percent of the world's wild tigers in just six percent of their current range, efforts need to focus on securing these sites as the number one priority for the species," said Dr. Joe Walston, director of WCS-Asia.
While the number of wild tigers in Vietnam has dropped to critical lows, tiger farming remains a concern for possible connections with illegal trading rings.
"The [Vietnamese] government must first monitor these farms closely to ensure no leakage of tigers either in or out. It may then be possible to reintroduce captive tigers into the wild on an experimental basis. This would require international oversight and strict protection of the reintroduction sites," said Brunner of IUCN.
Onkuri Majumdar, Senior Program Officer of conservation and human rights advocacy FREELAND Foundation, expressed a less optimistic view of the current crisis.
"Strictly enforced and constantly checked individual identification of tigers in these "˜farms' will ensure that unscrupulous owners are not able to launder many tigers by using the same identification tag for several animals.
"Simultaneously, there must be a continuous process of alerting and informing policy makers, senior government officials and civil society that these "˜farms' have zero conservation value," he said.
"Farmed tigers can never be released back into the wild because they have no wilderness survival skills. Instead of securing a future of wild tigers, farms only secure future profits for their owners."