Posted on Monday, August 14, 2006 (EST)
HANOI (AFP) - Snarling inside a cage and licking its wounds, a clouded leopard is recovering from being wire-trapped by poachers. The jungle feline is one lucky cat.
It was rescued last month when Vietnamese guards surprised a trafficker carrying the sedated animal near the Chinese border.
But while the 18-kilogram (40-pound) female is now recuperating in an animal rescue centre, alongside black bears, gibbons and other rare species, many more wild animals end up in restaurants, traditional pharmacies and souvenir shops.
Southeast Asia's forests, a biological treasure trove, have become a gold mine for wildlife traffickers, say ecologists.
And Vietnam has become a major Asian crossroads, with animals being smuggled from Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia and as far as India for sale here and for export to China, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong.
"This clouded leopard could have earned the smugglers 70 million dong (4,300 dollars)," said Nguyen Van Nhung, a veterinarian at the Hanoi Wild Animal Rescue Centre.
"Its meat would have been eaten and its bones ground up for medicine," he said, pointing at the animal now pacing in its metal cage. "People believe it makes them stronger."
Eric Coull, Greater Mekong representative of conservation group WWF says over-exploitation for the illegal wildlife trade now rivals habitat destruction as a major threat to the survival of many species.
"Nowhere is this more evident than in Vietnam, where wildlife populations are dwindling at an alarming rate due to illegal trade and consumption."
Dr Nguyen Van Song of the Hanoi Agricultural University estimates 3,000 tonnes of wildlife and wildlife products are shipped in and out of Vietnam every year, with only about three percent intercepted.
Half of the trade is for domestic consumption, the other half for export, he said in a report, mainly through the Chinese border crossings at Lang Son and Mong Cai, the area where the clouded leopard was found.
Song believes up to 3,500 kilograms of illegal wildlife goods pass through these border towns daily, including pangolins, lizards, turtles, cobras, pythons, monkeys, bears and tigers.
Smugglers have used ambulances, wedding cars and funeral hearses to smuggle the contraband, or hired foot porters through middlemen so they cannot reveal their bosses' identities if caught.
Permits and licenses are sometimes forged, and customs officials threatened or bribed, Song wrote, blaming "influential people," a euphemism for organised crime.
Like people elsewhere in East Asia, Vietnamese often express pride in their adventurous culinary tastes.
A popular saying in the region goes: "We can eat anything with four feet except the table. We can eat anything in the ocean except submarines. We can eat anything in the sky except planes."
Some wild animals are killed for their skins, to be stuffed or to make trinkets from tiger and bear teeth, ivory or turtle shell. Others end up in illegal private zoos. But three quarters die to be consumed, said Song.
Wildlife meat, and the wines and medicines made from it, have traditionally been believed to have healing and tonic properties in many Asian cultures.
Sulma Warne of wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said he recently learnt of a case where a group of men paid thousands of dollars to commission a tiger, which was killed in Myanmar, dissected and smuggled in parts to Vietnam.
"It's a status symbol," Warne said. "The fact that you can get tiger meat shows you have money. It's illegal, it's difficult to get. It's like caviar."
A recent survey by WWF and TRAFFIC found that nearly half of Hanoi's residents had personally used wildlife products, a trend the groups plan to tackle with a public awareness campaign being launched later this month.
In Ho Chi Minh City, a survey of 1,600 restaurants by the group Wild Animal Rescue found 15 wild species on the menu, among them deer, snake and turtle.
Over the past decade, biologists have been stunned to find that Vietnam, shut off for decades by war and politics, has rainforests far more species-diverse than previously known.
In 1992, researchers here discovered the saola, the world's largest new mammal found in over half a century. The forest-dwelling ox was not just a new species but also a new genus.
Since then a one-horned rhinoceros thought extinct in mainland Asia was rediscovered and biologists found three new deer species, 63 vertebrates and 45 unknown fish, says the recently-published 'Vietnam: A Natural History'.
Yet scientists are racing against time to catalogue the new animals before they are gone.
Many of Vietnam's wild areas have become denuded habitats, sometimes dubbed "empty forests." More than 300 animal species have disappeared and over 100 are threatened.
With virgin rainforests now reduced to a patchwork, fewer than 100 tigers, 100 wild elephants and 10 rhinos are believed to survive in the wild in Vietnam, their gene pools already too small to ensure their survival here.
Vietnam banned hunting without a permit in 1975 and has signed several treaties, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Yet enforcement is often weak, Song said, and the estimated profit of the illegal wildlife trade 30 times larger than state spending to combat it.
As long as demand grows, experts agree, the illegal trade will grow and continue to threaten the biological heritage of Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
"Vietnam has become famous over the past 15 years for the discovery of new species," said the WWF's Coull. "It could become famous for their extinction."