You are not what you eat

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Wildlife conservationists seek to counter long standing "˜tradition' in Vietnamese society

A public notice at the Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station in Ho Chi Minh City

"A criminal caught him in the jungle. A criminal sold him to a restaurant. A criminal  killed him. Don't be the criminal that eats him!" warns a public notice at a wildlife rescue station in Ho Chi Minh City.

But Nguyen Thi Diep does not see herself as a criminal.

The 69-year-old resident of Ho Chi Minh City says fist-sized elongated tortoise  meat steamed with dodder white wine and white pepper has proved to be a very effective remedy for her enlarged heart (cardiomegaly).

She had breathing problems, dizziness, shortness of breath, heart palpilations and fluid retention, forcing her to retire young from her job as planning manager at the HCMC Department of Agriculture in 1979.

About 30 years ago, one of her elderly neighbors told her about the elongated tortoise meat.

"I bought one at a local market and ate it all as advised, but nothing happened," Diep told Vietweek.

"So I decided to eat another one, and this time it worked. Since then, I no longer have any heart disease."

The Binh Duong native, a housewife since her retirement decades ago, has not kept knowledge of the remedy to herself, but willingly shared it with everyone who has the same health issue that she did.

She sees it as providing valuable help to someone, since the cure doesn't require much money and helps patients to avoid very expensive treatments including surgical procedures.

The problem is that Diep, and many other Vietnamese, don't know that the elongated tortoise  is now enlisted in Vietnam's Red Book, which means it is threatened with extinction. 

They do not make the connection between their consumption of wild meat and the hunters and poachers who are typically blamed for the nation's rapidly dwindling wildlife.

Root cause

Consumers are the root cause, the source of the problem, says Vietnamese non-profit organization Wildlife At Risk (WAR), which has set up the Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station (CCWRS) in the suburban district of the same name.

The station was opened 2006 in partnership with the HCMC Forest Protection Department as the first of its kind in the south to protect biodiversity in Vietnam by combating illegal wildlife trade and promoting the conservation of endangered species and their habitats.

In Vietnam, in addition to the loss of habitat and the illegal trade in fur, skin and meat, many animals are on the verge of extinction mostly due to their use in traditional medicine.

The use of wildlife in traditional medicine is based on the tenet: "ăn gì bổ nấy" (we are what we eat). The belief is that "eating animal organs will enhance the functioning of corresponding human organs."

Accordingly, bears are poached or bred for their bile and hands that are believed to effectively treat liver disease and enhance libido, pangolins are killed because their scales are rumored to help cure cancer and other incurable conditions.

Both these creatures are in the Red Book now. 

The wildlife rescue station in Cu Chi is home to many bears, and is also a safe haven for more than 200 animals of different rare species, including the yellow cheeked crested gibbon, moon bear, sun bear, female king cobra, great hornbill, binturong (Asian bear cat), pangolin, black shanked douc langur and the otter.

The animals have suffered, many losing one or more of their limbs, having their bile extracted (bears), and contracting diseases after being held in captivity for a long time in farms or homes.

Good for business

According to the city's Forest Protection Department, many of the rumors about miracle cures are started by poachers looking to maximize returns from their illegal activities.

Professor Nguyen Lan Dung, head of the Vietnam Biology Association, says the ăn gì bổ nấy perception has no scientific foundation, and that while there could be some medicinal uses, many of the rumors of cures are exaggerated.

"Bear bile only helps to improve blood circulation, and pangolin's scales are not used to treat cancers, but  is used for galactopoietic and sinusitic treatment."

Far from gaining health benefits, such beliefs and unscrupulous, criminal practices can harm consumers, says CCWRS manager Do Xuan Lam, a forestry graduate from the HCMC University of Agriculture and Forestry.

"People believe bear-hand wine can improve their health, but few know that the wine sellers,  in order to keep the hands in shape and prevent decomposition to attract buyers, steep it in formaldehyde, a chemical which causes cancer," he said.

"˜Grand irony'

Dominic Scriven, the British CEO of the HCMC-based fund manager Dragon Capital Group, a major sponsor of WAR who has committed the organization for another decade, sees the issue in different light.

"It is stupid to stick to the old ideas," Scriven told Vietweek in an email.

"The question here is not wildlife, but biodiversity, of which wildlife is one particularly visible and threatened component.

Biodiversity may have originally provided the source of cures, he said, but the whole point is that these cures are now provided by pharmaceuticals, which are much better and cheaper.

He cited as an example the idea that rhino horn cools the body temperature. 

"I have no idea if this is true, but even if it is true, there are tens of local and cheap pharmaceutical alternatives."

Already extinct in Vietnam despite several conservation projects, the nation's consumers are a driving force behind the poaching of rhinos in South Africa. 

Scriven said: "There appears to be universal support for the idea that biodiversity is good for mankind. It provides a diverse source of food and medicine, without which humankind would possibly not survive.

"It, however, is a grand irony of evolution that mankind, the
most successful species the world has known, is now destroying the biodiversity base that is necessary for its continued existence."
Scriven, who co-founded his firm in 1994 and now oversees a US$1.1 billion enterprise, said the fact that wildlife has no protector is a global truth, "but in Vietnam wildlife is particularly badly persecuted due to the low level of awareness, and there appears to be a very narrow set of thinking in relation to the rights of other creatures that share our environment.

"I have a home in Britain and am committed there to a similar level of biodiversity interest. But WAR is more necessary in Vietnam than in Britain, because the challenges are far greater in Vietnam, and the available resources seem much fewer."

A particular issue, he said, is that the problem in Vietnam is twofold a strong domestic market; and a strong export market in China.

So far, the station in Cu Chi has rescued more than 3,000 animals belonging to endangered species. One-third of these are released
to the wild after rehabilitation, and the rest, due to their inability to survive in wild environment after years in captivity and torturing, are sent to national parks and rescue centers throughout the country.

There are still more than 400 bears kept in local farms for bile exploitation in the city. They all wear chips under supervision of the city's Department of Forestry Protection.

"The good news is that more and more locals approach us and voluntarily hand over the animals to us," said Lam, adding: "We would be more than happy to lose our jobs, but there is a long way to go in Vietnam."

Wildlife At Risk (WAR) in Vietnam

In addition to the Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station, located on Route 15, Cho Cu 2 Hamlet, An Nhon Tay Commune, Cu Chi District, Ho Chi Minh City, WAR has built two other centers in the southern provinces of Kien Giang and Dong Nai.

It requires around US$1,370 a day for the food, water, salary and other expenses to run one station.

CCWRS staffs not only rescue abused animals from illegal trade and over-exploited as pets, and give them a house, food, and love, they also  help the healthy ones regain their wild instincts before releasing them to the forests.

They also carry out campaigns to improve public awareness and knowledge of wildlife protection, foster good attitudes and enhance skills for a diverse range of individuals so that they can make educated choices to change their behavior.

The wildlife education and fundraising program includes a student program, public program, paying volunteers, and adoptions, where both local and foreigners get the opportunity to spend time and money to take care of the rescued animals.

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