Vietnam’s Emptying Forests

In Vietnam, we wanted to learn about an important issue:  why is there poaching, or illegal killing, of certain endangered animals?

To find out, we went to ENV (Education for Nature Vietnam).  Animals are trafficked (bought and sold) illegally in Vietnam.  Many animals are also hunted in Vietnam, and sent to China because there is demand there.

Why would people buy and sell animals illegally?  Here are some examples:

  • Many animals — such as rhinos, macaques, or tigers — are killed and used to make traditional medicines.
  • Wildlife restaurants” serve exotic dishes to locals and tourists – such as porcupines, mouse deer, monitor lizards, civets, snakes and even bears
  • Animals are kept illegally as pets – monkeys, for example.
  • Some animals are stuffed or hung on the wall as trophies, or status symbols – like shiny lacquered marine turtle shells, or stuffed tigers.
  • Some animals are kept in cages as attractions to bring tourists into restaurants or hotels.

Vietnam’s Rhino:  Extinct

The impact of this illegal demand for animals and animal products is huge.  One example is the Javan rhino, which has been extinct in Vietnam since 2010 (a small population of only 50 Javan rhinos still exists, in Sumatra).

Indian Rhino (closest known relative to Javan Rhino). Photo from Jo Oh on Wikipedia.

It’s bad enough to kill a rhino, but the really sad thing is that the rhino is just left there – it isn’t even eaten or used for any other purpose except its horn.

The other sad thing is there is no medicinal value to a rhino horn.  A rhino horn is made of the same substance that is in our fingernails. ENV is trying to teach people facts like this, to reduce demand for illegal animal products.

But it’s a difficult problem:  it’s hard to change people’s minds if they think that a certain animal can cure diseases or improve their health — especially because these beliefs have been handed down through generations.

And, selling animals illegally can make hunters a tremendous amount of money.  A single rhino horn can be sold for up to $50,000 U.S. dollars!

Hunters are now going to other places, such as Africa, to hunt rhinos, and they are now in decline and danger everywhere.  So the extinction of rhinos in Vietnam may lead to the extinction of rhinos in other places as well.

Bears, Pangolins, Tigers and More

About 2000 bears are now in captivity in Vietnam, on “bear farms.”  Bile is harvested from their gall bladders, and used in traditional medicines.  It’s even used in drinks, and in some parts of Asia, in everyday products like toothpaste or shampoo.

Asiatic bear
Asiatic Black Bear – most common species used for bile.
Photo from Pelican on Wikipedia.

Although this was recently made illegal, it still happens.

However, now that it’s illegal… what happens to the bears?  There isn’t enough zoo space anywhere to take 2000 bears.  And it costs money to feed and care for them –it’s difficult to imagine that conditions for the bears are very good. So this problem is an unsolved issue begging for a solution.

Other examples:

  • Thousands of pangolins are captured each year in Vietnam and other countries, many of them destined for China.  In August, 2013, a single shipment passing through Vietnam was seized – it held nearly seven tons of pangolins (maybe as many as 800 pangolins).
Pangolin or Scaly Anteater

  • The population of Asian elephants has declined drastically in the last 20 years, and experts say they may become extinct in the wild within 20 years.  Much of this is because of loss of habitat, but elephants are also hunted for their hides, meat and especially ivory.
Asian elephant
Asian Elephant – Photo from Yathin S Krishnappa on Wikipedia
  • There are believed to be less than 30 tigers living now in Vietnam, from about 3000 in 1960. Globally, tiger populations are down to only about 3200 tigers.  This is down over 95% since 1900, when there were about 100,000 tigers in the wild.   Tiger bones are used in traditional medicine, and parts of tigers, such as claws and teeth, are believed to bring good luck.
Asian tiger
Indochinese Tiger – Photo from H. Zell on Wikipedia

Ground Zero?

Some call Vietnam “Ground Zero” for environmental conservation – because a number of species here are on the edge of extinction, including specific species of langurs (a type of monkey), gibbons, hammerhead sharks, salamanders, turtles, tigers and more.

Vietnam has a rising middle class, so more people have income to spend on illegal animal products, which can be very expensive.  However, people hope that the next generations of Vietnam’s youth will have a desire to save the country’s disappearing wildlife.

ENV’s Programs

ENV is working hard to lower demand for animal products – to get people to realize that there isn’t any benefit to using animal-based products (like the rhino horn we talked about earlier).  It’s also trying to use media and social media to make consumption of animal products “uncool.”

One of the things they’ve done is create a hotline (1800 1522 in Vietnam) – when people see illegal animal trafficking (is there another word for this?), they can call the hotline.  More than 6000 cases have been reported through ENV since 2005.

ENV poster
ENV poster

Another thing ENV has done is mobilize Vietnam’s youth.  They’ve established the Wildlife Protection Network – which now numbers 4,025 young Vietnamese people in 32 provinces.  They look for instances of illegal trafficking and report them.

ENV also works to strengthen enforcement of environmental laws in Vietnam – to make sure there’s a consequence when people break the law.  And, they work to close loopholes in existing laws, and get even better laws in place.

Louise Cotrel-Gibbons (left, Wildlife Trade Program Advisor) and Nguyen Phuong Dung (right - Vice Director) of ENV with Jamie & Jason
Louise Cotrel-Gibbons (left, Wildlife Trade Program Advisor) and Nguyen Phuong Dung (right – Vice Director) of ENV with Jamie & Jason

Next, we’ll do a story about a forest we visited in Vietnam, and efforts there to help save some of Vietnam’s vanishing animals.



Study Guide Questions:

1.  Can you name at least 3 reasons why people would buy and sell animals illegally?

2.  How many tigers were there in the wild in 1900, and about how many are there today?

3.  True or False: Rhino horn is made of the same thing as human fingernails.





All photos are by Larry Kraft unless indicated.

Information on number of tigers in Vietnam is from the National Action Plan on Tiger Conservation in Vietnam found here.

Information on global population of tigers and tiger population in Vietnam in 1960 is from: Thompson, C. (2010) Tigers on the brink. Facing up to the challenge in the Greater Mekong: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. WWF Greater Mekong, Vientiane, Laos

1 thought on “Vietnam’s Emptying Forests”

  1. Pingback: Black Rhinos: A Success Story in Namibia | Wilderness Classroom

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