Rare muntjac sighted

A rare Annamite dark muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis) was recently discovered caught in a snare in the remote jungles of the Hue Saola Nature Reserve. Mr. Bui Huu Vinh, the Forest Guard team leader, said that his team saw fresh hunter tracks in the mud, then heard the screaming of an animal in distress. Read more…

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Paradise lost?

We set off at daybreak the next morning. Everyone in the group felt that sense of excitement that accompanies the start of an expedition. After looking at my GPS I realized why this forest felt different. At 600 meters above sea level we were at a lower elevation than other areas I had surveyed. Many of the forested tracts in central Vietnam are at elevations of 1000 meters or more. This was true lowland tropical forest. According to information gathered from local hunters, this was the ideal habitat for many endemic ungulates, including Saola. After traveling upstream we divided into two teams. I would lead one group along with the head Forest Guard and a local guide. Thien, another WWF biodiversity consultant and my primary collaborator in the field, would lead the second group with two other Forest Guards. Our group headed north. The guides were smiling and chatting in Vietnamese as we walked. I was admiring the beauty of the forest around me and occasionally catching splashes of their conversation. All was good. And then we saw it: A bright blue tarp standing in sharp contrast to the green jungle vegetation. It was a poachers camp.

Poachers camp
Poachers camp

We froze. The Forest Guards had already warned me that poachers in this region were often armed and dangerous. I ducked into a tangle of bamboo while the Forest Guard cautiously approached the camp. He crouched low into the vegetation like a tiger stalking its prey. Then he jumped into the campsite, looked around, sighed, and waved us over. It was empty. We walked up to the camp and looked around. Hours-old cigarette butts and still-smoldering ashes told us that we had just missed its inhabitants. Then I noticed a grisly sight: a trophy board along one of the palm-thatched walls. Skulls and feathers provided a macabre reminder of the poachers most recent kills. Although sickened by the sight, I tried to put my emotions aside and act as any professional zoologist should. This was, after all, data. I examined each skull. Pig, muntjac, and monkey were all present, along with a host of small carnivore species. All seemed to have been killed weeks or even days before. It was a depressing reminder of ongoing illegal hunting in this area. I tried telling myself that it was also evidence that there were still large mammals present in the area—but it didn’t make me feel much better.

We were all silent for a few minutes. I remember thinking: Has this paradise been lost? One of the Forest Guards must have read my mind. “There are still animals here,” he said in a quiet yet firm voice. “This is still a good area. One of the best in Bach Ma.” I nodded and again drifted back into my own thoughts. I decided that I could use this experience one of two ways: I could let it get me down or I could use it to fuel my work. “Let’s go,” I said to the team. We shouldered our backpacks and set off into the jungle. We weren’t as optimistic as we had been half an hour before. But we were more determined.

Poacher trophy board
Poacher trophy board
Close up of monkey skull
Close up of monkey skull

Poaching

It’s important that I give you the bad with the good. In past posts I’ve said that illegal hunting is the primary threat to Annamite mammals. Although habitat loss and fragmentation are destructive forces in this landscape, poaching is the only threat that will drive large mammal populations to extinction in the near future. For species like the Saola and Large-antlered muntjac the loss of remaining Annamite populations would mean global extinction. We know that people are decimating wildlife populations in the Annamite Mountains. Many of the jungles in this region suffer from “empty forest syndrome.” There is plenty of suitable habitat but no animals left. It’s time to look at this issue in more detail. Who is doing this? Why? And how?

Wild pig remains found in a snare
Wild pig remains found in a snare

I’ll start with the caveat that all of my experience to date has been in Vietnam and not Laos. I suspect that the situation is similar on both sides of the border. Poaching is conducted mostly by local peoples living near—in some cases inside—protected areas. Often members of ethnic minority mountain tribes, these people usually have an intimate knowledge of the forest and the animals that live there. They know the landscape well. It has been their home for many generations. (This is certainly not to say that all local peoples living near protected areas engage in poaching. Some of the most conservation-oriented individuals I’ve ever encountered are from these rural villages and want to protect the forests that form a part of their heritage.)

What is the motive? In a word: Money. It is an often-propagated myth that local peoples hunt only for sustenance. This might occur in some areas but it is certainly the exception to the rule. People poach to contribute to two thriving industries: the local bushmeat market and the international illegal wildlife trade. Bushmeat is simply wild meat that is caught and sold for food. In many parts of Asia eating animals that have been caught in the wild is considered a delicacy. It is more expensive and seen as a status symbol. The illegal wildlife trade, on the other hand, occurs at both national and international scales and is often associated with organized crime rings. Many of the species sought for the illegal wildlife trade are valued for their supposed medicinal properties. The two flagship species that have been most affected in this area are tiger and rhino. In 2010, Vietnam lost the last of its rhinos to poachers, and you can probably count the number of tigers in the country on one hand. The reason: These species were targeted because they bring high value on the international black market.

How do people poach? Although guns are occasionally used the most common method is surprisingly simple and effective. Almost all poachers here use wire snares set to spring-loaded branches. A loop is made in a wire snare placed along a game trail. Sometimes the hunter will build fence-like obstacles out of brush or wood to guide an animal along a particular route. The other end of the wire is attached to a bent sapling. When an animal steps in the snare the wire tightens and triggers a release mechanism that causes the branch to spring upright. The more the animal struggles the tighter the snare becomes. The hunter returns at a later date to collect the animal. Sometimes the hunter will forget and the animal will starve. The traps are so cheap and simple that literally hundreds can be set in a week-long excursion to the forest. In some places in Vietnam you can’t walk two steps in the forest without coming across a snare. One fact is certain: if wildlife in Vietnam is to survive poaching levels must be severely curbed.

Forest Guard with snares
Forest Guard with snares