Extinction threatens Vietnam tigers

VietNamNet Bridge – On the endangered species list since 1960, the country’s tiger population is still falling prey to poachers. The number of wild tigers in Vietnam has dropped to around 100, half the figure less than a decade ago, a recent report released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) has revealed.

In 1999, the Big Cat Specialist Group reported an estimated 200-300 tigers were living in the country. The animals have already been added to the Viet Nam Red Book of endangered species. According to MARD, the major reason for their dramatic decline is poaching.

Selling wild animals such as tigers is a hugely lucrative business, raking in illegal profits only topped by weapons and heroin dealing, director of the Asian Animal Fund (AAF) Tuan Bedixen says.

Tiger skins, teeth and bones can be readily purchased in major cities. Last year Ha Noi police seized two live tigers and pieces of frozen meat from four tigers as they busted a smuggling ring in the city, one senior officer at Unit 2, says the Environmental Protection Division of the Ha Noi Police. Other rare animals were also discovered in the raid. “This was the first time that live tigers were smuggled through an urban area. It indicates that the perpetrators knew what they were doing and had done it before.”

Later the same year, police found two butchered Indochinese tigers in a freezer in an apartment in Ha Noi’s Thanh Xuan District. One tiger had been cut in half and the other skinned with its meat and bones diced for rendering. Each tiger weighed about 250kg.

But smuggling isn’t the only problem. Illegal tiger breeding is also on the rise across Viet Nam. Although Government policies encourage individuals and organisations to breed and protect rare animals such as tigers, this must be done according to strict guidelines, says Tran The Lien from the Forest Protection Department in Ha Noi.

“Government decisions No 18, 32 and 48 say people can breed wild animals but it’s important that the animals’ genetic origin is clearly stated as well as where the creature was procured,” he says.

Providing genetic information to help breeding wasn’t the only issue, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The organisation states that the animals’ environment must mimic their natural habitat to ensure they can survive in the wild.

These regulations may be in place, but enforcing them is another matter. A recent report by forestry inspectors revealed that breeders are still not being prosecuted for failure to follow IUCN regulations. The report also raises concerns that these animals are being bred for commercial purposes, not for conservation.

Extensive troubles

Vietnamese tigers are from the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) species. In the past, they were widely distributed in great numbers across the country’s forests and mountainous areas. Today they are only found in 24 of the 87 established nature reserves and national parks, according to MARD’s Forest Protection Department. But some reserves are quite large, and a comprehensive census is currently underway to establish an accurate count.

Despite falling numbers, the Thua Thien-Hue provincial Forest Department has reported evidence of three or four tigers living in Phong Dien Forest, an area previously feared to be tiger-free.

Nguyen Van Muot and Nguyen Van Mua of the Co Tu ethnic group in Phong My Commune reported that tigers had killed two buffalo in Rot Forest and Ma Canyon in March 2003. Ho Van Bong of the Van Kieu ethnic group also said he had spotted a tiger of at least 100kg drinking water in a stream while he collected honey in the forest. Earlier in the month, a 60kg tiger was seen in the Phong Dien Natural Reserve.

Also in that year, a team of scientists found tiger prints near an animal carcass in the forest’s wet lands. “We are so happy to find evidence to prove the existence of such a rare animal in the area,” one member of the study team says. “But the dry weather hindered our search a lot because it was difficult to find fresh footprints.”

Department Head Hoang Ngoc Khanh says his department will devise a detailed plan to protect the newly-found tiger population. With the support of the World Wildlife Fund, he says, the country will build a web cam system to keep a close eye on the animals to help research them and protect locals from attacks. “Such a system could help us crack down on poachers,” he says.

Red alert

As well as the formal consensus on tiger numbers, MARD’s Forest Protection Department has worked out a plan to protect and conserve tigers until 2010.

Under the project, scientists will be trained on conservative and biological research techniques to help them create a safe environment for the animals. A public awareness campaign will also target people living near or around forests, national parks or other protected areas where tiger populations survive. Special attention will be paid to protecting virgin forests, areas believed to be top tiger habitats.

Protecting tigers from extinction is an international issue and Viet Nam will also boost co-operation with Cambodia, Laos and China to protect and maintain tiger habitats, especially in national parks Pu Mat, Chu Mom Ray, Chu Yang Sin, Bu Gia Map and the Pu Luong Natural Protection Zone, according to an official from MARD.

Tigers have been on the rare species list in Viet Nam since 1960. So far, many forests that provide a natural habitat for tigers have been classified as nature reserves in a bid to protect the animals. The country became a member of the Global Tiger Forum in 1997 and signed a host of international conventions on natural preservation, including the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species, and the Convention on Bio-diversity.

But as the trade in wild animals continues to boom, only time will tell if Viet Nam’s tigers can be rescued from the brink of extinction.

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