Pangolins under threat in Vietnam | Global Ideas | DW | 16.02.2016
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Global Ideas

Pangolins under threat in Vietnam

They are the most trafficked mammals in the world, yet many people have never heard of them. As pangolin numbers dwindle, conservationists in Vietnam are trying to save them.

Lucky slowly emerges from the hay, unfurling his scaly, sinewy body and turning his leathery head a few times before deciding it might be better to stay put, and calmly sinking back into his bed. Being a pangolin, and thus nocturnal, late afternoon is still a little early for him.

Aptly-named, Lucky is indeed fortunate because he currently lives in a safe place: at the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program facility just outside Vietnam’s oldest national park, Cuc Phuong.

Most of his brethren aren't so lucky. In recent years, the scaly anteaters have become the #link: heavily trafficked mammals# in the world.

Driven by demand for their meat and scales, pangolin numbers have plummeted - and all eight species are now listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Chinese and Sunda subspecies are officially critically endangered, which means they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

Strong demand from China

These days in Vietnam, you are more likely to find a pangolin served in a restaurant - or packed into the back of a car or truck heading to the Chinese border - than roaming in the wild.

Burgeoning middle classes in both countries see the animals' meat as an illicit delicacy, and their scales are used widely in Chinese traditional medicine. Vietnam's big neighbor to the north is the greatest threat to the animals across the region and beyond.

A pangolin is being released back into the wild

The Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program aims to release pangolins back into the wild

Douglas Hendrie, a technical adviser with the conservation group #link: for Nature-Vietnam# (ENV) estimates that about 90 percent of the pangolins trafficked through Vietnam are destined for China.

Lack of enforcement against trafficking

Fighting the illegal trade is challenging. Although some progress has been made on prosecuting mid-level traders in Vietnam, Hendrie is concerned that authorities still give something of a free pass to major players.

Furthermore, local efforts are rendered futile if no action is taken at the regional levell. Hendrie describes Laos, which shares a long border with Vietnam, as "more or less an enforcement black hole."

As if that weren't bad enough, a recent report by the NGO Traffic says Myanmar has also become a thriving hotbed of illegal trade in the vulnerable species.

"If I were to give advice to the community of surviving pangolins in Vietnam, if such a thing exists," Hendrie jokes, "it would be: hide."

Pangolin program potential

Since hiding isn’t always an option, environmentalists have come to the pangolins' defense. #link: Vietnam's Wildlife# (SVW), the conservation group that runs the center where Lucky lives, has launched a program to release pangolins - often animals that have been confiscated by enforcement agencies - back into the wild. Aside from one similar facility in neighboring Cambodia, it is the only such initiative throughout Asia.

A pangolin being bottle fed

Keeping pangolins in captivity is difficult: Feeding them is costly, and breeding programs have met with limited success

In November, SVW also teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to return 24 animals fitted with tracking devices to their natural environment.

Nguyen Van Thai, director of SVW, believes this approach can offer new and important insights into pangolins. "Hopefully that way we will understand more about the animals, about their habitats and about their survival rate."

Getting pangolins back out into the wild is essential - not least because they don't fare well in captivity. Breeding programs have been of limited success, and SVW has seen a number of the animals die while in its care.

Public awareness and policy reform

As more of the animals are released into the wild in Vietnam, conservationists also hope education and outreach programs will encourage a change in public attitudes.

On World Pangolin Day, February 20, SVW will be opening a new center to raise awareness about the beauty of Vietnam's carnivores (the center also houses a number of endangered civet species) and its pangolins as well as the threats they face.

ENV say public perceptions are changing in Vietnam - and thanks to a growing network of local informants and a 24-hour wildlife crime hotline, it is becoming easier to target illegal trade at a local level.

Pangolin with a transmitter

By fitting the animals with trackers, conservationists hope to learn more about their their habitat and behavior

Recent changes in Vietnamese law have also given conservation efforts a major boost. New legislation which took effect in January 2014 - decree 160 - moved pangolins from a "second tier species to a fully protected endangered species," Hendrie from ENV explains. He says this has resulted in a significant drop in pangolin-related crime over the past two years.

Nguyen Phuong Dung, vice-director of ENV, confirmed this. "Before this law, when a pangolin was confiscated it would just go straight back into the hands of local authorities," she says.

But that often resulted in the pangolins being resold, and eventually killed. Nguyen Phuong Dung says the new legislation means they are now more likely to end up in facilities such as the one in Cuc Phuong.

"That law has given us the ammunition we need for our enforcement side to be able to have a real impact on the ground," Hendrie agrees.

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