Pangolins still in big danger despite Vietnam’s illegal trade crackdown

Rescued wild pangolin in Qingdao ready for release, 2017, photo: Reuters
Rescued wild pangolin in Qingdao ready for release, 2017, photo: Reuters

Pangolins are still in danger of being kidnapped from nature and trafficked, despite Vietnam’s renewed vow to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade that many blame for the coronavirus pandemic.

Arrests, prosecutions and wildlife seizures are up in Vietnam, but conservationists warn that corruption and flaky law enforcement mean that trafficking continues.

Tran Van Truong works at a rescue center in northern Cuc Phuong National Park run by Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, a group that has rescued around 2,000 pangolins in the last six years.

The 27-year-old Truong remembers the day he discovered more than a 100 pangolins tied up in sacks, thrown on the ground by police outside the truck that had carried them.

“Most of them were dead due to exhaustion,” he recalls, explaining they had no air or water. “They get easily stressed.”

Vietnam is both a consumption and a transport hub for illegal wildlife in Asia.

The pangolin’s scales are falsely thought to cure anything from impotence to menstrual cramps in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine, and its flesh is also seen as a delicacy.

But earlier this year, China removed pangolin parts from its official list of traditional medicines, and there are some encouraging signs of the same happening in Vietnam too. 

Traffickers are let go too easily
Wildlife trafficking captures in the country have increased 44 percent over a two years, according to Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV). In the first six months of 2020, 97 percent resulted in arrests.

The shift came when a law was revised in 2018 that pushed up punishments, both fines and prison terms, and closed loopholes; an effective way to prevent wildlife crime, ENV says.

But enforcement is still a huge issue. In July, as fears of the pandemic spread, the government urged ministries, courts and prosecutors to apply the law correctly.

But giving over-worked agencies more to do without the resources to match, is simply “inviting failure”, warns Dan Challender of Oxford University, a specialist in pangolins and wildlife trade policy.

Many are committed to eliminating the trade, says Ha Bui from ENV, but traffickers are still being let off too easily. “It’s often due to corruption that people get a lighter sentence.”

Target consumers of pangolin meat
For Save Vietnam’s Wildlife director Nguyen Van Thai, the laws do not go far enough and should also target consumers. If police find pangolin meat at a restaurant, “it is only the restaurateurs that will have problems, not the people eating it,” he says.

Back in Cuc Phuong National Park, Truong spends hours making life comfortable for pangolins that have survived distressing encounters with traffickers.

He keeps them away from loud noise and only feeds them their favorite food, ants’ eggs and termites. “I love all wild animals,” he says, as he¬†gently takes a curled-up pangolin into his arms, comforting the shy animal rescued months earlier from traffickers in Vietnam.

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