Vietnam bashing Op-Ed goes ape, infuriates conservationists

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This picture taken on March 14, 2012 shows a vet examining a bear's teeths at Tam Dao Bear Rescue Center inside Tam Dao National Park. Conservationists say the fact is that wildlife consumption is a huge problem worldwide and Vietnam is one among many countries that must deal with this. But an opinion piece by a US Pulitzer Prize winning journalism professor at a leading university about wildlife consumption in Vietnam has drawn the ire of critics who say it is riddled with factual errors and misleading conjectures.

An opinion piece by a  US Pulitzer Prize winning journalism professor at a leading university about wildlife consumption in Vietnam has drawn the ire of many expat residents and conservationists who say it is riddled with factual errors and misleading conjectures.

Several expatriates who responded to the piece (titled Despite increasing prosperity, Vietnam's appetites remain unique) that appeared in the Chicago Tribune called it "moronic" and the professor a "moron" for missing the glaringly obvious.

"You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage. No dogs out for a walk," wrote Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times in the Op-Ed carried by the Tribune on Tuesday (January 29).

The attempt to pigeonhole the whole of Vietnam as a country where "you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all," because "most have been eaten," was unprofessional and "pathetic," readers say.

"Vietnam isn't the monster portrayed in the article," Jake Brunner, program coordinator for Vietnam with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told Vietweek.

Brinkley's attention-grabbing opener was a misrepresentation of reality, other conservationists say.

"I would disagree with a lot of his comments about birds and dogs and argue that he has missed the mark on quite a few things," said Naomi Doak, coordinator of the Southeast Asia-Greater Mekong Program at the international wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC.

"There are lots of birds - they are just in cages and lots of dogs but mostly pets," Doak said.

Brinkley was correct in blaming the "dearth of tigers, elephants and other big beasts" to animal trafficking, experts say. But this was not a problem unique to Vietnam, they add.

Conservationists and politicians have repeatedly warned that Vietnam is on the verge of an "extinction crisis" brought on by deforestation, widespread poaching and a "largely uncontrolled" illegal wildlife trade. Rhinos have been confirmed extinct in the country and without drastic measures, tigers or elephants will suffer the same fate, they say.

The WWF, an international conservation group, in July last year also ranked Vietnam as the worst country for wildlife crime in a report on how well 23 Asian and African countries protect their rhinos, tigers, and elephants.

But in his article, Brinkley appeared to go over the top.

"... The World Wildlife Fund describes the state as the world's greatest wildlife malefactor," he wrote.

Conservationists have dismissed such extrapolation.

"That is hardly what WWF has said. It's simply hyperbole," said Pamela McElwee, an assistant professor of  human ecology at Rutgers University who has researched extensively on Vietnam's protected areas.

Conservationists say the fact is that wildlife consumption is a huge problem worldwide and Vietnam is one among many countries that must deal with this.

In fact, the US and EU are the largest markets by value for several major types of wildlife, like wild pet trade, according to trade data analyzed by TRAFFIC.

"I would not draw any sweeping conclusions about US or European 'character' from this, but simply that they have a market problem," McElwee told Vietweek.

But such sweeping generalizations abound in Brinkley's article.

""But what about birds and rats? Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives here... Vietnamese have been meat eaters through the ages, while their Southeast Asian neighbors to the west - Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar - have largely left their wildlife alone," he wrote.

"Right now, the favored dish is dog. In fact, dog meat is particularly prized. It's considered a specialty because it is said to contain more protein than other meats.

"Vietnamese have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the state's aggressive tendencies - and the sharp contrast with its neighbors."

Such writing reflects poorly on Brinkley and discredits him as a high-profile professional, experts say.

"I would also argue he hasn't spent much time in neighboring countries," Doak said.

"I dont think the Op-Ed piece is particularly well researched. If it was he would know rats are a common menu item across the region and dog is definitely not the delicacy of choice."

It is also a mistake to conflate problems with enforcement of trade in endangered species (no doubt a serious problem in Vietnam) with the author's dislike of the practice of eating dog or rat meat, experts say.

While it is not illegal to consume dog meat in Vietnam, there are many cultural practices of eating certain animals that some people may not like - eating horse for example is more acceptable in France but not the US, the experts say.

But even if that is the case, "one cannot use that as a basis for a critique of an entire country's 'character'," McElwee said.

Conservationists say Brinkley repeatedly tries to draw conclusions about an entire country ("Vietnam has aggressive tendencies") based on factually untrue statements ("Other countries in Southeast Asia don't have wildlife problems"), anecdotes ("dogs sometimes get stolen for dog meat restaurants"), and shoddy pop psychology ("eating meat makes one aggressive").

"[It] is always bad journalism," McElwee said.

In a response to the Op-Ed, a foreigner named Michael Tatarski, who identified himself as "someone who lives in Vietnam and has Vietnamese friends," called it "the worst Vietnam article ever."

"It is the most hideously misleading, offensive, and factually bereft collection of words I've ever read regarding the country," Tatarski wrote in a blog entry.

"The fact that someone with such an apparently illustrious career could write such a fallacious, uninformed piece is disturbing. The fact that a major publisher would run it is perhaps even worse," he said.

Brinkley also offered up surprisingly skewed historical statements in his piece.

To show the readers how latently "aggressive" Vietnam was, he cited "17 wars" that Vietnam fought with China and the "numerous times" the country invaded Cambodia, most recently in 1979.

Independent international experts and historians have all concurred that China was the provoker on all occasions and that the 1979 liberation of Cambodia was justified because it saved thousands of Vietnamese living there from certain extermination by the Khmer Rouge.

The journalism professor, however, could see no merit in all the criticism he has faced.  He dismissed it as "borne of hysteria."

"I stand by my reporting," he told Vietweek. "I've spent a great deal of time in the region," he said.

But unlike the foreign experts and readers, Vietnamese experts did not react with anger.

"I have seen many similar comments about Vietnam  here and there so it isn't a surprise to me to see this article," said Vu Thi Quyen, founder of Education for Nature-Vietnam, a local environment group.

"For me, it  is just an indication of how much this or that person really  understands our country," she said.

"It means you can't expect everyone to  understand who you really are, especially someone who only spends few  minutes with you or hears about you through someone else."

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