Articles

How Much for That Tê Tê? Vietnam’s illegal pangolin trade

April 15, 2010

story by Mike Ives
illustration by Cy De Groat
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

THE OTHER NIGHT,  I left my Hanoi apartment and walked around the corner. Eateries in my neighborhood cater to middle-class Vietnamese patrons. English signs hype pizza, sushi, Tex-Mex, free Wi-Fi and pricey local specialities like cha ca — grilled fish with dill, peanuts, and sticky rice noodles.

I ducked into an upscale Vietnamese restaurant with floor seating and Chinese decor. Inside, young professionals were toasting with tiny cups of rice wine. A cheery hostess said in English that the wine was home-brewed. Did I want to taste?

“Actually,” I said, lowering my voice, “I wonder if you’re serving tê tê?”

The hostess smiled, excused herself, and disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later, she returned and said she was, for about $200 U.S. dollars per kilogram — more than five times Vietnam’s monthly minimum wage. Somewhat taken off guard, I quickly replied that I had already eaten but would return to try the restaurant another time.

Eating tê tê — the Vietnamese name for pangolin, a scaly nocturnal mammal resembling an anteater — is a fashionable activity among some well-heeled Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City diners. It’s also illegal under Vietnamese law and international treaty. Like other species of wildlife in Southeast Asia, the small, docile mammals are illegally trapped or killed in Indonesian, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese forests. Smugglers ship pangolins to cities in Vietnam and China, where they are eaten in restaurants, used as wine flavoring, or processed into traditional medicines.

Southeast Asia’s illegal pangolin trade appears to be bustling. According to the UK-based wildlife advocacy group TRAFFIC, authorities seized more than 30,000 smuggled pangolins between 2000 and 2007. Two winters ago, officers in Haiphong, a port city in northern Vietnam, seized 23 tons of dead pangolins — the remains of 8,000 animals.

In April 2008, two Vietnamese researchers, Nguyen Dao Ngoc Van and Nguyen Xuan Dang, launched an undercover survey of restaurants, markets, and shops in Vietnam that sell pangolins. Their study, “The Pangolin Trade in Viet Nam,” reported “widespread consumption” of Chinese and Malayan pangolins in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The report said pangolin-infused medicines are typically used to fight “cancers, malaria, rheumatism and circulation problems,” and that “pangolin meat is mostly bought to impress guests and demonstrate social class.”

Pangolin trafficking takes a toll. Four of the world’s eight pangolin species are native to Asiavi. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of threatened species lists two of them — the Indian pangolin and the Palawan pangolin — as “near threatened.” The Chinese (or Formosan) and Malayan (or Sunda) pangolins are “endangered,” meaning they face a “very high risk of extinction in the wild.”

Fanny Lai, CEO of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, reports that the pangolin genus name, Manis, derives from the ancient Roman phrase “spirit of the dead.” In 2008, Lai told attendees at a pangolin conference in Singapore that if action isn’t taken to protect remaining pangolin populations, the animal “will indeed live up to its name.”

Pangolins weren’t always in trouble, according to Nguyen Van Thai, program officer of Vietnam’s Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program. In a phone interview from his office in Cuc Phuong National Park, Nguyen told me that Vietnamese people have always used pangolins in traditional medicines but didn’t hunt them for export until the 1990s.

The report said that “pangolin meat  is mostly bought to impress guests and demonstrate social class.”

Nguyen, who has worked on pangolin conservation since 2005, said wildlife consumption trends correlate with rising standards of living in Vietnam. “Now more and more people are getting rich, so they are eating more wildlife,” he explained. “Vietnamese people think wildlife products are good for their health, even if they don’t know if it’s good or not.”

Nguyen and other experts are trying to help pangolins on several fronts. Since 2005, the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program has received 27 rescued pangolins. Nguyen said the program, which has an annual budget of less than $30,000, receives grants from such diverse sources as the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation and zoos in London, Houston, and Singapore. The CPCP rehabilitates pangolins, sends e-mail updates to Vietnam- based environmental professionals, and teaches law enforcement officers how to police the illegal wildlife trade. Meanwhile, TRAFFIC and the World Wildlife Fund run an advocacy campaign aimed at keeping pangolins and other wildlife out of Hanoi restaurants.

Major obstacles impede pangolin research and advocacy work. Nguyen said zoos struggle to keep captive pangolins because it’s difficult to source ants and termites — pangolins’ favorite entrées. And because zoos generally don’t fund long-term pangolin projects, he added, it’s difficult to raise money for research.

(When donors do fund pangolin research, the results aren’t always cheery: A December 2008 study in the journal Endangered Species Research, “Pangolins in Peril: using local hunters’ knowledge to conserve elusive species in Vietnam,” found that scientific pangolin- monitoring practices are “rarely successful,” and that not enough is known about pangolins to assess their “conservation needs.”)

Photo: Leanne CLark, Courtesy Carnivore  and PangoLin Conservation Program, Vietnam

Then there’s the allure of financial incentive. According to the 2008 survey of Vietnam’s illegal pangolin trade, “pre-market” live pangolins sell for up to $125 per kilogram, pangolin scales cost $225 per kilogram, and cooked meat typically sells for between $113 and $188 per kilogram. That’s enticing for hunters who earn as much as a year’s salary by selling a single pangolin. “Hunters are very poor, and some of them understand they’re doing a bad thing,” Nguyen Van Thai said. “But they need to do it for money.”

Another problem is cash-hungry policemen. According to Nguyen, Vietnamese law enables environmental policemen to sell confiscated pangolins. Sulma Warne, Greater Mekong Programme coordinator for TRAFFIC, said selling confiscated pangolins sends “entirely the wrong message.”

Nguyen Van Thai agrees. “It’s a problem,” he said of the rangers’ behavior. “Sometimes we send official letters, but they still don’t send us the pangolins. Sometimes the rangers prefer to sell animals rather than sending them to rescue centers.”

Three nights after my initial visit, I returned with a Vietnamese friend to the restaurant that had offered me pangolin meat.

We took our shoes off, sat at a table in the romantically lit dining room, and ordered a pangolin-free feast.

Before a waitress brought our spicy beef, fried fish, boiled cabbage, and rice wine, a friendly young manager sat down to chat. The 30-something Hanoian looked more like an IT consultant than a wildlife smuggler’s accomplice.

“Who buys your tê tê?” I asked.

“Rich people,” he said in English. “They say it makes them stronger.”

“Where do you get the animals?”

“A guy who gets them from the forest,” the manager said. “But it’s very difficult.”

“Difficult how?”

“Because tê tê isn’t accepted under the rules, I can’t buy them in the street,” he explained. “If I do, and police see, they will catch me.”


MIKE IVES is a freelance writer living in Hanoi, Vietnam, and a former staff reporter for the Vermont weekly Seven Days Newspaper.


CY DE GROAT is a Dutch-American collagist living in San Francisco. Her current obsessions are color psychology, cat language, and carrot juice. Recently, she has been finding balance through funk music and statistical analysis. Drop her a line at cydegroat@gmail.com


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.
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