Taming a wild feast

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A Party directive against consumption of wild meat by state officials could yet turn out to be a paper tiger, experts fear

Bile bear extracted from the gall bladder of a bear at at bear farm in former Ha Tay Province, now part of Hanoi.

The latest move to curb consumption of wildlife meat targets state officials, who are known to be major consumers, but several experts and at least one lawmaker, are skeptical about amounting to the drastic change needed.

"Vietnam's biodiversity is hanging in the balance today through years of illegal exploitation and habitat destruction," said Dr. Scott Roberton, Vietnam office chief of Wildlife Conservation Society, a New York-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) which seeks to save wildlife across the globe.

"Rhinos are already history in Vietnam. Without drastic measures, tigers or elephants will suffer the same fate," said Nguyen Dinh Xuan, an outspoken deputy of the National Assembly, Vietnam's parliament.

This April, the carcass of a Javan rhino was found hornless and bullet-ridden in a forest in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong. Biologists are still trying to determine whether the corpse represents the last of its kind in Vietnam.

Conservation groups have warned that the numbers of tigers and elephants are also fast diminishing in Vietnam.

Late last month, the Communist Party's Propaganda and Education Commission issued a dispatch aimed at enhancing awareness of the need to ensure "sustainable consumption" of wildlife products by state organizations, businesses, and individuals. For the first time, it expressly prohibited state officers from eating or otherwise consuming wildlife-related products.

"The issuance [of the dispatch], albeit rather late, is heading in the right direction and targeting the right audience," said lawmaker Xuan, who is also a member of the parliamentary Committee on Science, Technology, and Environment.

Who's who?

Studies in the country have found that those with higher education and higher levels of income or status are more likely to be consumers of wild animal products.

A report entitled A Matter of Attitude issued in 2007 by the wildlife trade monitoring network

Bile being extracted from the gall bladder of a bear at a bear farm in former Ha Tay Province, now part of Hanoi

TRAFFIC surveyed 2,000 Hanoi residents from various districts, age groups, and income levels on their consumption of wildlife products.

The report found that the demand for wild animal products was not only widely prevalent, but also widely accepted in the capital city.

Another study released last year by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) titled Illegal wildlife trade in the lowland Dong Nai River Watershed Forest, Southern Vietnam, confirmed that state officials and businessmen remained leading consumers of wildlife.

The WCS Vietnam trained and deputed qualified forest rangers to carry out undercover investigations in Lam Dong and Dong Nai provinces in late 2007.

Many restaurants selling wild meat in the two provinces identified government officials as frequent customers apart from local businessmen, drivers and rich people.

The study found that Tran Kim Dong, a former police official of Vinh Cuu District in Dong Nai Province, was a wholesale wildlife trader at the time of the investigation. Local traders reported to the surveyors that they sold their wildlife products to Dong because his former job as a cop afforded him protection.

Many owners of restaurants selling wild meat in Dong Nai explained that as officials were common customers, they rarely had issues with law enforcement. One owner in the province's Dinh Quan District was the former deputy chief of the district police force, and another in Xuan Loc District was a local military leader, the study found.

Roberton of Wildlife Conservation Society said it was difficult to assess without more research if the consumption of wildlife products among state workers was growing or declining.

"[But] considering the weak control of illegal wild meat restaurants and traditional medicine pharmacies selling protected wildlife and the generally low law enforcement on wildlife crimes, I see no reason for it to have decreased," Roberton said.

The 2007 TRAFFIC report suggested that as economic development continues to increase and disposable income levels rise, the use of wild animal products could become even more prevalent.

"The consumption of wildlife products is not just a way to show off social wealth or status. It is also a sophisticated bribery tool," lawmaker Xuan said.

"Many inspectors and I myself have discovered some cases in which government officials have received a bottle of bear bile or a rhino horn as bribes."

Traditional Chinese medicine considers rhino horn a key restorative. Shaved or ground into a powder, the horn is immersed in hot water and used to treat fevers, rheumatism, and gout. Experts have said these health claims had not been proven scientifically.

Quang Ninh Province, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay, has achieved notoriety for its bear bile trade. Bear firms extract the bile with needles and sell it to mainly Chinese and Korean visitors as a health tonic, a cure for liver and heart ailments, an aphrodisiac, or an additive in shampoo, toothpaste and soft drinks.

"˜Just another document'

While it was better late than never to take steps against the consumption of wildlife products by state officials, the Party dispatch still does not have enough enforcement teeth, experts said.

Lawmaker Xuan said he understood that the guidelines are not looking to ban the consumption of all wildlife products, but felt that the conception of "sustainable consumption" enshrined in the dispatch was still vague.

"I'm just concerned it would create loopholes for the illegal farming of bear or tiger in Vietnam to cash in on."

"I feel the Party dispatch should not promote "˜sustainable wildlife consumption,'" said Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam Director of Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based conservation group which seeks to eliminate cruelty to animals.

"There should be no consumption of wildlife and by promoting or advocating "˜sustainable wildlife consumption' it will ultimately cause the species to become extinct," Bendixsen said.

He cited the example of tiger farming in China and elsewhere where the feline creatures have been pushed to the brink of extinction.

"Similarly with the bears. Bear farming was supposed to protect bears in the wild but we all know in countries like Vietnam bears are critically endangered."

Xuan said the best way to ensure results was through a combination of sustained awareness campaign and law enforcement.

"The dispatch should spell out concrete action to be taken against state officials who flout the [wildlife] rules," Xuan said.

Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV) - the country's first NGO to focus on conservation of nature and the environment, said his experience of many years in Vietnam has told him not to believe what he sees in writing.

When asked what good he was expecting to see from the dispatch, Hendrie said, "In my dreams the government launches propaganda among the officials. When they discover officials or party members violating the laws, they are punished very publicly and seriously.

"When I wake up and I think about the document, [I fear] maybe it's just another document. I hope this is not just a piece of paper."

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