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Probe finds Vietnam faltering in bid to curb wildlife trade, animal suffering

Wader chick

A wader chick that has escaped their cage struggles on the pavement at the Thanh Hoa bird market in Vietnam. Image courtesy of We Animals Media

  • In recent years, authorities in Vietnam have made a series of pledges to curb illegal wildlife trade and the sale and consumption of dog meat.
  • However, a new investigation by animal rights groups reveals that protected wildlife species are still being sold at wet markets, where animal suffering and public health risks are rife.
  • The findings also indicate the dog meat industry shows few signs of abating, with slaughterhouses and restaurants still doing business despite calls to phase out the industry in major cities.
  • Experts say sustained and coordinated efforts from provincial authorities, enforcement agencies and the public will be needed to fully curb the practices throughout the country.

Blinking slowly, the waterbird can’t move. A male greater painted-snipe, he’s tightly tethered to the top of a wire cage among half a dozen of his species. The mass of speckled brown feathers, which serve as superb camouflage in the snipes’ native reedbed habitat, heave as the birds breathe what will be their final breaths.

The scene above is recorded on video at the Thanh Hoa bird market as part of a new investigation into Vietnam’s animal markets and dog meat industry by Canada-based nonprofit We Animals Media, in collaboration with the Asia for Animals Coalition (AfA), a group of animal welfare organizations campaigning for better conditions for animals in Asia. Hundreds of videos and photographs gathered during the probe depict the extent of animal suffering in these establishments, as well as risks to biodiversity and public health.

Working undercover in June 2022, photojournalists Aaron Gekoski and Napat Wesshasartar visited two of Vietnam’s roughly 9,000 wet markets: Thanh Hoa bird market in Long An province and Chợ Nam Trung Yen market in Hanoi, both of which sell live wild animals alongside domestic species. They also visited dog slaughterhouses and dog meat merchants in Đức Thượng commune and Hữu Hưng Street in Hanoi.

A row of stalls at the Thanh Hoa bird market, an exotic animal market in southern Vietnam referred to by campaigners as a “birds’ hell” due to the brutal conditions in which animals are kept and slaughtered. Image courtesy of Aaron Gekoski / Asia for Animals Coalition / We Animals Media

A bird’s hell

The intensity of the illegal wildlife trade was particularly concerning at Thanh Hoa, according to Napat. “This [market] has been called a bird’s hell,” he told Mongabay. “It’s where birds, snakes and other exotic wildlife are caged and sold for human consumption and domestication. Around 1,000 wild birds are killed and sold here every day.”

Besides the aforementioned snipe, the range of wild birds for sale at Thanh Hoa included storks, egrets, herons and juvenile eagles. Given that such species are found in Vietnam’s extensive rice fields, wetlands and shoreline habitats, and are rarely bred in captivity, Napat said most of them were likely wild-caught and therefore of illegal origin. The photographers also recorded traders selling venomous snakes like cobras and critically endangered elongated tortoises (Indotestudo elongata) and yellow-headed temple turtles (Heosemys annandalii).

The investigation took place after the Vietnamese government issued a series of directives reiterating the country’s laws on wildlife protection and calling for renewed efforts to curb wildlife crime.

In July 2020, partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the prime minister called on ministries and provincial authorities to improve the enforcement of existing wildlife laws and to hand out stricter penalties for violations. The 2020 directive also administered a moratorium on wildlife imports into the country. Then, in May 2022, a separate directive addressed rampant poaching and consumption of wild and migratory birds, calling on enforcement agencies to close down markets selling wild-caught birds.

Notwithstanding the government’s appeals, Napat said he saw “no sign of serious action” from enforcement authorities to identify crimes and issue punishments during his June 2022 visit to Thanh Hoa. Traders were openly selling wild birds and critically endangered turtles to buyers with no fear of repercussions, he said.

Egrets, herons and other waterbirds, their feet and bills bound with tape, for sale next to cages of snakes at the Thanh Hoa bird market in Long An province, Vietnam. Image courtesy of Aaron Gekoski / Asia for Animals Coalition / We Animals Media

Change will take time

Poor law enforcement has led to the sale, killing and consumption of wild birds, becoming “a huge problem for species conservation” in Vietnam, according to Trinh Nguyen, Vietnam director at wildlife trade watchdog TRAFFIC. Law enforcement agencies often lack the expertise to identify wild bird species encountered at markets, she said, hampering their capacity to apply the appropriate legal procedures.

Doug Hendrie, counter wildlife trafficking director at Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), a group focused on combating wildlife crime in Vietnam through policy work, enforcement support and deterrence campaigns, said that while a snapshot of the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam is always going to “look like hell,” the country’s capacity to deal with wildlife crime has improved “remarkably” over the past two decades, including a recent boost in response to the latest government directives.

“A year ago, there was essentially very little enforcement focused on birds [but] now we’ve seen a flurry of law enforcement action trying to follow up on [the 2022 directive],” Hendrie told Mongabay. “Authorities [are] ripping down nets left and right in every province.”

Besides dismantling the ways poachers catch wild birds, Hendrie said enforcement agencies are typically a lot more responsive to addressing the trade at markets than they have been in the past. He said authorities in Long An province are aware of the issues at Thanh Hoa market and are taking steps to shut down illegal practices. Nonetheless, Hendrie noted that it will take time and sustained efforts to effectively clamp down on traders laundering wild-caught animals through commercial farming facilities and passing them off as legal.

A critically endangered tortoise at the Thanh Hoa bird market, selling for $200. Image courtesy of Aaron Gekoski / Asia for Animals Coalition / We Animals Media

“It’s the first year of an enforcement campaign focused on birds,” Hendrie said. “Never before has there been a zero-tolerance policy in effect where virtually every bird crime becomes an issue for enforcement. It’s going to take five years for Vietnam to [manage bird crime] as effectively as other species groups.”

Nguyen Tam Thanh, animal welfare manager at Animals Asia, a member group of AfA, said the investigation’s evidence of wild and domestic animals being kept in cramped and unhygienic conditions at wet markets suggests that hard-learned lessons from the global pandemic are going unheeded.

“People are now talking about back-to-normal status [for wet markets] and seem to have forgotten COVID-19 and the potential link between [animal markets] and zoonotic disease,” Thanh told Mongabay. “We are not very good at remembering.”

Thanh also noted major animal welfare concerns around slaughtering methods prevalent in wet markets and dog slaughterhouses. Vietnamese laws that stipulate that animals need to be stunned before slaughter do not apply in these establishments, he said, an issue “that needs to be addressed at the highest level.” He added that brutal practices typically in public view at many wet markets can have lasting effects on people’s mental health. “Many research articles highlight the link between witnessing animal cruelty and violence.”

Karst forest in Vietnam. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Stalled dog meat ban

Besides the wildlife trade, Vietnam’s authorities have also made pledges to curb the dog meat industry in major cities, such as Hanoi and Hoi An. However, the investigation revealed that in Hanoi, the industry is still in evidence. Dogs were recorded crammed into tiny cages, and slaughtering and butchering was typically conducted in full view of those animals still alive. “[The industry] causes a lot of suffering and pain to not only the animals, as they suffer during transport, during slaughter, and during capture,” Thanh said, “but also many dogs are stolen [pets] taken by poachers, which causes social impacts on society.”

As in other countries, Vietnam’s dog meat industry has been widely linked to the spread of rabies, a disease that kills more than 70 people in Vietnam each year, with most cases stemming from bites or scratches from infected dogs.

Read more: ​​Campaigners against dog meat trade take on one Indonesian city at a time

The social, health and animal welfare concerns surrounding the dog meat trade has led to strong public support for phasing out the industry. According to research by the nonprofit FOUR PAWS, just 6.3% of Vietnam’s population consumes dog meat, and 88% of the public supports a ban on the practice. While plans to eradicate dog meat from the center of Hanoi by 2021 haven’t materialized, the value of similar pledges in tourism hotspots are yet to play out.

Dogs slated for slaughter are crammed tightly into small cages at a slaughterhouse in Hanoi. Image courtesy of Aaron Gekoski / Asia for Animals Coalition / We Animals Media

According to Thanh, such piecemeal, province-level commitments are not enough when it comes to phasing out dog meat and cracking down on the wildlife trade. “Unless there’s a strong commitment from all the provinces in Vietnam, and from the central government, it’ll be a long way until we can reach the point where Vietnam no longer has [such practices].”

However, Hendrie said he’s optimistic that Vietnam can continue its current trajectory of curbing the wildlife trade. The most important thing, he said, is sustained daily efforts to discourage traders from reengaging in illegal practices. “There’s no such thing as going in and cleaning up a market and then walking away. It isn’t about getting a bunch of arrests and confiscating a bunch of animals … it’s about showing that they will never be able to operate again like they did before.”

Meanwhile, Napat said he’s hopeful that his photographs can inspire the actions of Vietnam’s decision-makers and the public to ultimately bring about meaningful changes for both domestic and wild animals. “I hope that the videos and photos will at the very least send a message to the Vietnamese people to take serious action.”

A pile of adult greater painted-snipe fastened to a cage containing live snakes at the Thanh Hoa bird market. Image courtesy of Aaron Gekoski / Asia for Animals Coalition / We Animals Media

Banner image: A wild bird chick struggles on the ground at the Thanh Hoa bird market. Image courtesy of Aaron Gekoski/Asia for Animals Coalition/We Animals Media.

Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11

Read more about the wildlife trade in Vietnam:

Anticipated new restrictions on wildlife trade in Vietnam fall short of a ban

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