Wildlife keeper Tran Van Truong gently takes a curled-up pangolin into his arms, comforting the shy creature rescued months earlier from traffickers in Vietnam. Life remains precarious for the world’s most trafficked mammal ,despite the country’s renewed vow to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade that many blame for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arrests, prosecutions and wildlife seizures are up in Vietnam, but conservationists say that corruption and patchy law enforcement mean that the scourge of trafficking continues.
Truong works at a center in Vietnam’s Cuc Phuong National Park run by Save Vietnam’s Wildlife — a group that within the past six years has rescued about 2,000 of the so-called “scaly anteaters.”
The 27-year-old remembers the day he discovered more than 100 pagolins tied up in sacks, cast on the ground by police outside the truck that had carried them.
“Most of them died due to exhaustion,” he said, adding that the animals had no air or water.
“They get stressed easily,” he said.
Vietnam is 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 and even cancer in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine, and its flesh is also seen as a delicacy.
Earlier this year, China removed pangolin parts from its official list of traditional medicines, and there are some encouraging signs in Vietnam, too. Wildlife trafficking seizures in the country have increased 44 percent over a two-year period, according to non-governmental organization Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV).
In the first six months of this year, 97 percent led to arrests. Prosecutions are also significantly up.
The shift came on the back of a revised law in 2018 that pushed up punishments, both fines and prison terms, and closed loopholes — an effective way to deter wildlife crime, ENV said.
However, enforcement is still a huge issue. In July, as fears of the pandemic spread, the Vietnamese government urged ministries, courts and prosecutors to apply the law properly.
Giving overstretched agencies more to do without the resources to match is simply “inviting failure,” says University of Oxford researcher Dan Challender, a specialist in pangolins and wildlife trade policy.
Many are committed to eliminating the trade, but traffickers are still being let off too easily, ENV vice director Bui Thi Ha said.
“It’s often due to corruption that people get a lighter sentence,” Ha added.
For Save Vietnam’s Wildlife director Nguyen Van Thai, the laws do not go far enough and should also target consumers.
If the authorities find pangolin meat at a restaurant, “it is only the restaurant that will have problems, not the people eating it,” he said.
Back in Cuc Phuong National Park, Truong spends hours making life comfortable for pangolins that have survived distressing encounters with traffickers.
Truong keeps them away from loud noise and feeds the pangolins only their favorite food — ant eggs and termites.
“I love all wild animals,” he said, adding that he might look to diversify soon.
“There are others that are on the verge of extinction, so I want to help save them next,” Truong said.
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