Endangerment of Vietnamese species

Species extinction for medicine and Vietnam’s cuisine



The Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh clarified repeatedly that forest is somewhat worthy of protection: „Forest is gold. If we know how to conserve it well, it will be very precious.“.

Illegal fishing with drift nets in Van Long Nature Reserve.

Now is uncle Ho been dead for over 40 years. And with the memories of him wane also those of that simple awareness – especially after 1986 the programme for an economic renewal (Doi Moi) was proclaimed. With that Vietnam should have be led into a market economy after decades of endured wars and famines. Since then was this programme in a manner a success. With high single-figure rates of increase of the annual economic performance Vietnam allures foreign investors. Economy prospers, Vietnam ascended to the worldwide largest coffee and second largest rice producer. The other side of the coin is an increasing land consumption and an evermore intensified voracity for exclusivity. Was in former times bush meat food of the poor population, so it is nowadays in vogue to treat business partners to a dinner prepared from rare and thereby high-priced animals. By doing this, are for example the last specimens of some turtle species to a price per kilo in excess of 1.000 € eaten up from global map.

But not only consumption of wild animals has in Asia tradition for thousands of years. What is not fit for human consumption, finds application in the traditional Chinese medicine.

Not even 100 specimens of the endangered Asian black bear shall live in the wild in Vietnam. Approximately ten times the number is in Vietnam, the seventy times in China in small cages penned in to ram them once a week a needle into the belly for siphoning off of bile. In TCM Asian black bear’s bile is a healing effect ascribed, after all it shall eliminate excess heat from the body. But not only those succumb to superstition. Tiger bones, rhino horns and feral cats are virility-promoting effects, turtle blood bracing and pulverised bones of pangolins, which look like an oversized fir cone, generally miracles performing effects attributed. What does not supply Vietnam’s own consumption, finds solvent customers at the great neighbour China – also a side effect of globalisation.

A group of wild Delacour’s langurs (Trachypithecus delacouri) in Van Long Nature Reserve. This species belongs to the 25 world’s most endangered primates. Photo: S. Elser.

In Vietnam you would not like to be a monkey: If you are jumped out the cooking pot, have defied the adversities of landscape fragmentation, so still threatens one a life as pet. Macaques, gibbon babies and lorises are on Hanoi’s and Saigon’s illegal animal market sold and die in captivity often soon of a false diet. An in the course of evolution in leaves or insects specialised stomach does not adjust itself within a few days to bananas, cooked rice and fast food. Or how about an existence in a lab to be allowed to test the newest cosmetics?

Nonetheless: The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora prohibits any trade with those by that protected animals or products made from them. In 1994, CITES was executed by Vietnam.

Vietnam brought, with a length expansion of more than 1.600 kilometres over 16 latitudinal lines crossing and as a consequence thereof heavily varying climatical and geographical conditions together with a location with high precipitation in the eastern foothills of the Annam mountain chain, an unique flora and fauna out. Therefore Vietnam has the highest endemism in all of Indochina.

Forests that have survived the widespread American use of Agent Orange within the 2. Vietnam War, yield now bulldozers in the context of the economic renewal and fall victim to illegal logging. A fragmented, ruined landscape remains. Were in 1943 still 43 per cent of the country area arboreous, so were it in 1995 just 20 per cent, from which were not more than one third regarded as primary forest.

And yet Vietnam has definitely exemplary animal protection acts, a variety of national parks and still more nature reserves. But especially on the national parks is increasingly put pressure to develop those as fun parks – what runs in Vietnam under the label ‚ecotourism‘.

Keeping of pets

It is the tenth day of my Vietnam trip. I am on the road with an Easy Rider from My Son to Kon Tum. In between we stop at a village of the Bahmer mountain tribe. Behind a great thatched-roof house on stilts races that: A macaque – chained at a tree it runs again and again mindless from the left to the right and back.

An out of an illegal keeping of pets delivered pygmy loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus). Photo: S. Elser.

Just as this macaque it fares countless monkeys. They are traded illegally in Hanoi and Saigon on pet markets. 2005 founded the NGO Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV) a Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU) and a feeless hotline. In the following three years were 267 animal protection delicts reported that monkeys hit. In 61% concern it possession, in 20% transport, in 10% disposal, in 5% in brandied and as food offered monkeys and in the remaining 4% hunting. To 61% were macaques, to 16% langurs and douc langurs, to 13% lorises and to 10% gibbons involved.

These figures give a reason for thought. Is putatively the dark figure many times higher and are the affected species partly endangered, partly critically endangered.

In Vietnam’s private households and hotels a vast number of monkeys carve out a miserable existence in narrow cages and perish yet mostly in a short time, because the owners do not live up to the highly complex diet of these monkey species.

Apart from the quite common macaques, the with a colourful, indeed almost spiff appearing fur decorated douc langurs and gibbon babies, that in appearance and social behaviour remind of infants, are often the small lorises kept as pets. Nevertheless is this nocturnal species with its razor-sharp teeth as pet completely unsuitable. That is why them are often extracted the teeth by the owners.

Loss of habitats

A 'reintroduction cage'. In that was an originally from the EPRC originating Delacour’s langur for 48 hours habituated to its new home and then released permanently.

In 2. Vietnam War the Americans were in a frustrated battle against the enemy guerrilla movement FNL (‚Vietcong‘), that created a gigantic network of hideouts and channels of supply (Ho-Chi-Minh-trail) within Vietnam’s dense rain forest. In order to hamper their concealment by the dense rain forest and to disturb food supply, John F. Kennedy authorised in 1961 the operation ‚Ranch Hand‘. During this, the Americans sprayed between 1962 and 1971 on a forest area, which is equal to that of Hesse, according to recent studies in total about 80 millions litres herbicides. The most important was ‚Agent Orange‘, which was producing caused contaminated with the toxic substance 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). By the operation ‚Ranch Hand‘ were approximately 170 kilogrammes dioxin released (By way of comparison: At the Seveso accident in 1976 in Italy were according to estimates between a few hundreds grammes up to 34 kilogrammes released.), that until today partly can lead to serious damage to health of the population of the areas concerned. According to estimates of the Vietnamese Red Cross from 2002 about one million Vietnamese suffer from the long-term effects of ‚Agent Orange‘. As further herbicides were used ‚Agent Blue‘, ‚Agent Purple‘, ‚Agent Green‘, ‚Agent Pink‘ and ‚Agent White‘.

Additionally were approximately 400.000 tons napalm, an incendiary weapon with jellied petrol as main component, by US-forces during the Vietnam War applied.

However, also after the 2. Vietnam War Vietnamese forests were not doing better. Due to default of alternatives was on a grand scale draw on wood for reconstruction. As a result of this, more forest area got lost until 1987 than before during the 2. Vietnam War.

An abstract from my travelog: „Later landscape changes into a dense forest, scenic gush some waterfalls on the roadside. On the pass it is distinctly cooler, after all we are approximately 1.800 m above sea level. The highest peaks are concealed by thick clouds. Now we go downhill again. […] After crossing of the pass surrounding changes noticeably: Forests are vanished. Whether it is a result of the use of the defoliant Agent Orange by the US-Army during the second Vietnam War or simply a logging due to economic interests, I couldn’t say. Anyhow appear only bleak hills, interrupted by pampas grass several metres high and rice terraces.”

Where once primary rain forest with a rich fauna stood, grow today only grasses and bushes. Erosions and damages by flood are the consequence. In addition Vietnamese studies prove that ‚Agent Orange‘ has drastically reduced numerous endangered animal species too.

Then, a prospering economy after proclamation of the programme for an economic renewal (Doi Moi) in 1986 followed seamlessly. Still intact forests made more and more way for the increasing industrialisation. A further problem is illegal logging.

Increasing fragmentation of the biotopes bothers more and more the remaining species. Such as the Delacour’s langurs, which depend on the existence of a species-rich, tropical limestone rain forest that exists worldwide only in some places. This primate species feeds on plant species, which are exclusively present in this forest type. In addition are the areas between the remaining ‚limestone rain forest islands‘ cleared, so that populations are isolated from each other. In consequence these are very interference-prone, so can seal the loss of the last male their fate. Thus small, inbreeding-threatened groups must be elaborately resettled.


Well, why should be ecotourism a problem? In the final analysis the Vietnamese version of ecotourism has nothing to do with western ideas of a sustainable, low-impact and ecologically compatible tourism. In Vietnam ecotourism is understood as an entertaining in the wild, consequently is put strong pressure on the national parks to develop them quasi as ‚fun parks‘. Exactly that I have myself experienced in Cuc Phuong National Park, where already in the park a wedding to pop music in disco volume ‚blustered‘.

Food products

Once more, I stop in a cookshop and start my day Vietnamese-classically with a delicious soup: Pho Bo, a noodle soup with beef, consisting of a soup stock made from cattle bones, shallots, ginger, fish sauce, cardamum, star anise, Chinese cinnamon – in combination with ribbon noodles, beef and also many fresh herbs as for instance coriander.

On the table stands, as in fact in each of these cookshops at Hanoi’s street corners, a bottle nuoc mam. About this fish sauce of dubious consistence Vietnamese make an extreme effort, how it elsewhere is perhaps made about wine. Just as godd wine originates from Bordeaux, so originates a good nuoc mam from Phu Quoc island or from Phan Thiet. Vietnam has really an brilliant cuisine and food enjoys there a prior position. Alone the traditional Vietnamese cuisine shall count more than 500 dishes. On the contrary, Vietnamese cuisine does not spare non-classical, in West Europe not accepted, ingredients. I was allowed to participate in a Vietnamese banquet and what was there dished up caused even with me an urge to gag.

A bow net in Van Long Nature Reserve. With that are captured illegally fishes and crabs.

The more traditional and exclusive a food is, the higher is meanwhile its desirability. Was it during communist time still taboo to dine decadently, so it is in times of the economic recovery almost common practice. Business dealings are sealed in restaurants, whose menu reads as Vietnam’s Red List: rua (turtle), te te (pangolin), cay huong (civet cat), ran (snake) and khi (monkey).

But it is not that so that Vietnam lacks political will. The country has thoroughly exemplary animal protection acts, in 1994 was signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Only it is lacking in money and in default of a functioning authority in self-assertion. But also in an appropriate awareness of the population: „This species is extinct? So what!“

In a country, in which the average income of a rice farmer amounts to monthly under 20 € and the price of a venison dish starts exactly at 20 €, the profit margins of the poachers are going up in astronomical highs. Heated is the trade by an increasing demand of the great brother China. But not only Vietnam is meanwhile meat supplier, likewise have Burma, Laos and Cambodia an essential relevance as Chinese ‚country of production’ for bush meat. Vietnam is for those countries the main trade corridor.

Poaching and illegal trade are fought by park rangers and border officials – who often unarmed, underpaid and frustrated sit in the forest, chain-smoke and their discontent drown in alcohol.

Traditional Chinese medicine

Cat Tien National Park in South Vietnam gained in 1992 international attention when a small population of the Vietnamese subspecies of the Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus) was discovered there. Already for years this subspecies was believed to be extinct and just about 18 years it lasted that the species despite intense protective measures found its way again into the gallery of eradicated animal species. In April 2010 was the last specimen by poachers slain.

In the previous years arose a real hype about rhinoceros horns, Vietnam ascended to the primary market for illegal trade and one kilogramme rhino horn realised black-market prices of 26.000 €. The trigger were probably rumours about a therapeutic effect in the case of cancers. Although these rumours were never undergirded by oncologic studies, nevertheless they seal the fate of one of the biggest and most beautifully Vietnamese animal species.

Unfortunately are not only rhinoceros horns to be found on the drug formulary of traditional Chinese medicine. On that are to be found many further endangered animal species too. Asian black bear, tiger, snow leopard, saiga, pangolin and golden coin turtle (Cuora trifasciata) constitute only a random selection.

To the same extent as the demand for therapy options of TCM in the context of globalisation not least also in the western world, but likewise in the booming Asian region, increased and at the same time the so far escaped number of wild animals continuously decreased, equally continuously increased also those ‚market prices‘. The very same thing boosts at once the profit margins of the poachers in ever new highs.

Let us return to the golden coin turtle, one of the most endangered freshwater turtle species of Asia. It is still to be found in South China and North Vietnam. However, with a price per kilo of 1.200 US-Dollars it is not very far from extinction. As with the Vietnamese subspecies of the Javan rhinoceros its putative miracle healing power in the case of cancers will spell doom for that turtle too.

But not only Vietnamese turtles are in deep water. Snakes have not it one jot better. If you stroll through Hanoi’s narrow alleys and look into the overflowing shop windows, so will here and there a wrinkled, in rice wine preserved cobra stare at you. The snake wine (‚rouo rau‘) is in the TCM considered as panacea and represents yet the most appetising variant. You can also buy in rice wine preserved goat penises, monkey embryos and bear paws.

Animal testing

In 1967 died several employees of the laboratories of the pharmaceutical company Behringwerke in the Hessian Marburg of a heretofore unknown virus. In those days were from Uganda originating guenons kept as laboratory monkeys. Those spread the virus, which was later described as Marburg virus.

However, use of monkeys as ‚laboratory rats‘ is in view of the near relationship with humans still a topic. They are still kept for medical purposes or for cosmetics test.

So were confiscated in 2007 for example 44 poached black-shanked douc langurs, which were intended for medical purposes and for production of glue from their bones (BirdLife International, 2010).