Seeking concern for animals in Vietnam
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1999:
HANOI, SAIGON––Like U.S. soldiers who served
year-long tours of duty in Vietnam during the Vietnam War,
wondering why they were there all the while, Supriya Bose finished
a year in Saigon and flew home to Bombay recently,
questioning what she might have accomplished.
A second-generation humane worker, Bose in mid-
1998 left a prestigious job as clinic manager for the Bombay
SPCA and Bai Sakarai Dinshaw Petit animal hospital in hopes
of finding the opportunity to do humane work in Saigon, where
her huband worked for an Indian-owned printing company.
As Khumbatta later explained in a letter to ANIMAL
PEOPLE, she soon learned that Vietnam had no humane societies,
and apparently no animal shelters. The few international
conservation groups working in Vietnam are all based in Hanoi,
a three-day train ride to the north over tracks never fully
repaired after multiple U.S. air strikes, 1964-1975 (and now
temporarily washed out by flooding that hit the Hue region hard
in early November 1999).
There was an animal shelter in Vietnam once, at
Binh-Thuy, founded and operated from 1965 through 1969 by
then-U.S. Navy advisor John Seales. It handled both military
dogs and strays found on the base.
Seales remained in animal protection, as director of
animal control in Hot Springs, Arkansas, 1973-1998. What
became of the Binh-Thuy shelter is unclear, as is the fate of
most of the 4,000 dogs who served with the U.S. military during
the war years. About 1,000 dogs were reportedly given to
the South Vietnamese military when the U.S. withdrew from
combat. Little is known about them, and less about most of the
others, despite the production of a book and a television special
about them in recent years.
Arriving in Saigon at almost the same time as
Khumbatta, just to visit, SPCA of Josephine County (Oregon)
president Eleanor Edmondson had a better experience.
“We were happy to find that killing cats is now prohibited,
after Vietnam learned the hard way that cat-killing
leads to mice and rats causing huge losses to granaries,”
Edmondson reported in the SPCA of Josephine County
newsletter. “That seems to be a lesson every culture has to
learn the hard way. The use of dogs for food is definitely on
the decline, according to [Vietnamese] reports, although it is
still done in some places. We saw many who were obviously
only guards and pets, which was encouraging. The ability to
keep pets is a mark of improving living conditions, usually,”
Edmondson continued. “We saw several cats,” Edmondson
added, “including three who shared our meals at a lovely hotel.
We also saw some cats in villages along our way.”
Edmondson’s observations about cats, dogs, and a
resurgence of pet-keeping in Vietnam were confirmed by recent
reports from news correspondents. Combatting a rat plague,
Vietnam in late 1998 closed cat-meat restaurants, banned
exports of cats and snakes, urged farmers to raise cats, and
advertised the efficacy of cats as rat-killers compared to poisons
and electric traps, which had reportedly killed several
dozen people during the preceding months.
The Vietnamese, in more prosperous times, were
notably fond of pet birds and fish. Pet-keeping was largely a
casualty of prolonged warfare––but when Viet troops were witdrawn
from neighboring Cambodia in 1989, 10 years after
ousting the late dictator Pol Pot, brightly colored pet birds were
among the homecoming solders’ favorite souvenirs.
Birds are still popular, according to Birdlife
International, to the extent that while caged birds are increasingly
often seen around Hanoi, intensive trapping has depleted
the wild population. As buyers prefer males, because they
have brighter colors and sing, the trappers and vendors reputedly
often kill females––and many also die in handling.
“Despite an abundance of potential perches,” wrote
Huw Watkin of the South China Morning Post in July 1999, “a
walk around Hanoi rarely results in the sighting of a bird. Even
central Hanoi’s many lakes are devoid of waterfowl.”
But local bird dealer Nguyen Manh Hung told Watkin
that he was selling birds as fast as he could get them––usually
for about a third of the average Vietnamese worker’s annual
wage, but sometimes for more than twice as much.
Imported tropical fish sales are also reportedly booming,
to the extent that escaped or released piranhas are seen as a
threat to the native ecology of the Mekong River. Piranha
imports were banned in July 1998.
Purebred dogs, however, are the most costly common
pets. A Pekinese fetches more than the average
Vietnamese annual wage, according to Watkin; a Rottweiler
goes for more than 10 times the annual wage. “Dog training
services are also booming,” Watkin wrote. Three-month obedience
courses can cost the equivalent of nine months’ average
Wildlife protection has a long tradition in
Vietnam––and a reputed 550-year-old living symbol in the sixand-a-half-foot-long
Hoan Kiem softshelled turtle believed to
inhabit Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of Hanoi.
“The story goes,” San Jose Mercury News Vietnam
bureau chief Mark McDonald wrote in 1998, “that Le Loi, a
warrior king, used a heaven-sent sword to hold off Chinese
invaders back in the mid-1400s. After the final battle, as Le
Loi was boating in Hanoi, his sword leaped from its scabbard
into the mouth of a turtle. The turtle plunged underwater with
the sword, and the lake has been known as Ho Hoan Kiem ever
since, which translates, ‘The Lake of the Returned Sword.’”
The lake is only the size of two football fields, is
almost entirely surrounded by concrete, and is just seven feet
deep, not counting bottom muck. Three divers in early 1993
claimed to have found no trace of a turtle there, in four hours
of searching. Yet a giant turtle has been seen there 38 times
since 1991, when scientific investigation began. The turtles
were photographed on several occasions, according to turtle
expert Ha Dinh Duc, 57, of Hanoi National University. It was
at Duc’s request that former Vietnamese prime minister Vo
Van Kiet personally intervened, after the 1993 divers’ search,
to prevent Hoan Kiem Lake from being dredged.
Whether there is just one turtle present, or a small
colony, is unclear. No more than one has ever been seen at a
time. What is clear is that the Hoan Kiem turtle is a unique
species. An estimate based on tracks indicates it weighs about
400 pounds, nearly twice the maximum known weight of the
next largest softshelled turtle species.
Duc was shot in the throat by poachers while documenting
other rare animals recently discovered or rediscovered
in the Viet highlands: the oryx-like sao la, also called the Vu
Quang ox, in 1992; the giant muntjac deer in 1994; the cowlike
kouprey in 1994, last seen in 1960; and the slow-running
deer in 1995. All are believed to be highly endangered, partly
because logging threatens their habitat, partly because publicity
about their discovery has reportedly encouraged a boom in
both poaching of black market specimens and attempted captures
to experiment with captive breeding. So far, only a handful
of Vu Quang oxen have survived capture, and none of them
have lasted in captivity longer than three months.
The most recent Viet rediscovery was the Javan
rhino. Ranging from Calcutta to southern China as recently as
1750, the small nocturnal rhino was poached to the verge of
extinction during the 20th century. About 60 Javan rhinos survive
in Indonesia. The Viet population, however, was
believed to have been lost until a poached carcass turned up in
1989. In 1998 biologists found footprints of five to eight rhinos
at Cat Tien National Park––the only protected part of a forest
opened to development in 1992. There, World Wildlife Fund
staffer Mike Balzer and team used cameras triggered by electric
eyes to photograph several Javan rhinos earlier this year.
The Javan rhino has become notoriously shy, but
Viet elephants are more conspicuous as they vanish, having
trampled to death at least 13 villagers in the southern provinces
of Dong Nai and Binh Thuan during the first eight months of
1999. The five Dong Nai and Binh Tranh elephant herds, none
larger than 15-20 members, have frequently rampaged since
1994, possibly because a shortage of females has left many
males unable to find mates. But habitat loss is an even bigger
threat to the elephants––and to the villagers who inadvertantly
get in their way. Half of the former elephant habitat in the
Dong Nai and Binh Thuan has been logged since 1992, says
Flora and Fauna International representative Frank Momberg.
FFI and the Viet forest department in early 1999
abandoned plans to start an elephant reserve in Dong Nai after
finding that only one elephant remains in the region. Five others,
previously in Dong Nai, have moved into Binh Thuan.
A previous attempt to start a Vietnamese elephant
reserve failed in 1993 when all but one of the elephants who
were taken to it died. Now Momberg and the Vietnamese government
hope to set aside a sanctuary in centrally located
Daklak province, where most of the surviving elephants seem
gathered to make a last stand.
Estimates issued circa 1980 put the total Viet elephant
population at 1,500 to 2,000. By 1996, Flora and Fauna
International had revised the estimate down to 250-300. As of
September 1999, Momberg said, there were 98 confirmed survivors,
with perhaps 150 total elephants remaining.
Agriculture, of sorts, is a threat of another kind to
Asiatic black bears. As many as 800 of the scarce bears are
held captive at so-called bile farms north of Hanoi, reported
TRAFFIC Vietnam representative James Compton in October
1999. The bears’ bile, used as a pain reliever in traditional
Asiatic medicine, is drained from their gall bladders via surgically
“After three or four extractions,” said Compton, “the
bear usually dies.”
Illegal trade in wildlife, both dead and alive, is also
problematic in Vietnam. In one July 1998 incident, police
investigating an apparently overloaded taxi in Thua Thien Hue
province were startled to find a wounded 143-pound bear and a
44-pound tiger cub, also wounded, in iron baskets in the trunk.
The bear died under medical care within the hour, but the tiger
lived to be returned to the wild.
But much of the traffic appears to be coming into
Vietnam from Laos, rather than going out. Vietnam in turn is
reportedly used as a smugglers’ waystation; the ultimate markets
are believed to be in China.
According to WWF, Laotian species recently found
for sale in Vietnam include both Asiatic black bears and sun
bears, clouded leopards, sunda pangolins, and Chinese pangolins––which,
ironically, are now extremely rare in China.
The Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian prime ministers in
mid-October 1999 reached a joint agreement to protect the
wildlife of the especially vulnerable Truong Song mountains,
which form their mutual boundaries. However, reported Huw
Watkin, “The specifics of the plan are yet to be developed,
and will probably take years to implement.”
Stopping in Vietnam are breeding specimens of
species believed to have agricultural potential. Speculation in
exotic animal breeding is rife despite many conspicuous failures
of similar schemes. A python-breeding boom during the
rat plagues of the mid-1990s turned to bust recently, for
instance, and a crocodile-breeding boom collapsed in mid-
1999 when Vietnam joined the Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species. Officials then halted crocodile
exports pending an inventory of the farmed species and an official
determination as to which are barred from trade. But speculation
reportedly continues in ostriches, despite a six-year
slump in global demand for ostrich products.
The only profitable species introduction for farming
in recent years involves softshelled turtles. Observers suspect,
however, that the profits come not from turtle farming per se,
but rather from maintaining the pretense that wild-caught turtles
have been farmed and are not being exported at the expense of
the severely depleted native turtle population.