Interview with 3 WWF Employees at the WWF office in Hanoi
How can the WWF contribute to protecting wildlife and ecosystems in Vietnam?
The WWF is active in central and southern Vietnam, where the most diverse and biologically significant national parks are located. National parks and nature reserves are under the government's jurisdiction, so we support provincial and district government staff in protected area management. Capacity building is the key. A well managed area will engage all efforts to protect wildlife and plants, while integrating livelihood development of the local population. It's a challenge, as higher officials often do not understand the principles of ecology and are assigned to the national parks for short time periods. Effective law enforcement is another major issue, which can only be accomplished by supporting the technical staff and the park rangers.
How are local communities responding to the WWF's efforts?
In protected areas about 30% of the work is dedicated to working with local communities, that being developing alternative and more ecological agricultural techniques such as shaded agricultural plantations. We educate the communities about the importance of the protected areas and preserving the species rather than exploiting them for profit. Integrating the communities into the park management and supplying them employment opportunities, for example as community park rangers, have shown very positive results.
Tell me more about government and community park rangers.
There are about 10 000 park rangers scattered across the national parks in Vietnam. Different types of employment exist, with different backgrounds and training. The so-called professional rangers are direct government officials. They had to pass exams to get this position, but they receive good training and equipment. They are a semi-armed force, carrying fire weapons and handcuffs to arrest offenders. The provincial level rangers should theoretically also receive training, but not all of them do. So the WWF offers training opportunities, an opportunity to also teach the men how to monitor wildlife. The community rangers or forest guards are not government staff, but they have been proven to be effective for community outreach and integrating the communities into the park management. In some cases these men were hunters before, who now understand the importance of protecting wildlife. However, they do not carry weapons and cannot give fines. Therefore they patrol together with the professional rangers.
Usually the rangers go on patrol for five days, sleeping in the protected area. They use the spatial monitoring and reporting tool SMART, to record everything they find on patrol, i.e. poachers and wildlife, and they track the patrol route.
But being a ranger is not easy. They are exposed to the weather conditions, need to confront poachers in an area where help is far away and the terrain is rugged, and could be attacked by those wild animals which they are set out to protect.
Why is poaching still such a large problem if the existing laws protect wildlife?
The demand for wildlife is extremely high! Animal parts are still used in traditional Asian medicine and the direct consumption of wildlife is a popular specialty. It has become a status of wealth and power to consume wildlife, and some restaurants are making good money by offering these so-called specialties. Wildlife is considered to be much healthier than the consumption of domesticated animals, as modern agriculture uses chemicals and antibiotics, so consumers are willing to pay high prices.
The people realize that its illegal to consume wildlife, but as long as the law is not enforced, they have little incentive to stop. The same goes for the poachers. They earn their living by laying snares and searching for animals in protected areas. Until law enforcement does not improve and the demand remains high, illegal hunting will prevail until there's nothing left to hunt.
If poaching is largely demand driven, how could the demand and consumption be reduced?
A behavior change needs to occur, a new approach the WWF is taking right now. But changing peoples behavior will not happen from one day to the next. Law enforcement needs to improve now! In Europe people also like to consume deer or wild boar, but people largely abide to the law and respect the hunting season. A similar system has to be set up in Vietnam. If the probability is high for a consumer to get caught, then a change in behavior will take place. Overall, effective wildlife protection funnels down to anti-poaching efforts coupled with strong law enforcement and reducing the overall demand.
Sounds like a mammoth task to me and one that is surely closely linked to development.
Yes. Development plays a key factor, especially for the villagers still engaged in hunting. At the moment, these poachers make their living from hunting animals and sustain their livelihoods in that way. Rangers and officials face the dilemma of taking this source of income away from the villagers. Alternatives to sustain their livelihood, such as becoming a ranger or selling high-value agricultural goods, are therefore essential in order to crack down on poaching.
What do you hope for in the future?
Our work is already showing positive results, but we hope to strengthen our contacts with park officials and villagers to jointly protect our natural heritage. We are heading in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work ahead of us.
Thank you very much!
Note: This interview text is a compilation of individual interviews with Viet Hoang, Alegria Olmeda and Nguyen Dao Ngoc Van (all WWF Vietnam staff). We want to thank all three of them for supporting our journey and taking their time to sit down and share their stories and thoughts with us.
"Some conservationists consider Vietnam so highly degraded that they write it off as a lost cause." states the Lonely Planet Greater Mekong Area. Well we have met some conservationists and rangers who haven't lost hope yet and are putting all their efforts into saving Vietnam's forests, wildlife and natural heritage. A tough fight, as at the moment the odds and statistics are playing against them. With a population of 93 million, Vietnam is the most populated country in South-East Asia and the 14th most populated country in the world. Coupled with the strong economic growth experienced in recent years, and the devastation caused by the US spraying the herbicide agent orange during the Vietnam war, forests and whole ecosystems are increasingly put under pressure. The consumption of wildlife and other wild products is popular among the new rich and little knowledge about the environment together with weak law enforcement drive species towards the brink of extinction.
Not the most promising location to witness conservation in action and write about successful nature protection. But with 150 nationally protected areas and nature reserves and the government's goal to establish more forests and protected areas in the future, the outlook could be promising. We visited two national parks and several smaller nature reserves and met with conservationists from the WWF and Fauna and Flora International (FFI). In Ba Be National Park we were lucky to find a translator and could interview the head of the park rangers.
Ba Be National Park
The Ba Be National Park is located in the north of Vietnam and encompasses the largest fresh water lake in the country. Steep forested slopes and large cliffs surround the lake and are the ideal habitat for hundreds of mammal and bird species and thousands of plant species. For example, the highly endangered Francois Langur was once quite abundant in this area, as it is typically found on cliffs in evergreen forests.
The park was created in 1992 and some old remnants of the initial park infrastructure, e.g. park headquarters, visitors center, road signs and entry ports still exist, even though in a rundown state. Interestingly a few thousand people live in settlements within the park. The people either engage in agricultural practices, have turned to tourism and now offer lodging and boat tours, and some still roam through the forest in order to hunt wild animals.
When we cycled into the park, past two rangers at the entrance sleeping in hammocks, and swerved down the hill into a settlement, we wondered if we would really encounter a sanctuary for wild animals and plants here. It's true, that a successful national park should incorporate local communities rather than expelling them completely from the area, but large corn and rice fields, dozens of guesthouses and a fleet of tourist boats is not how I imagine good protected area management.
We took our time to explore the park, cycled around the lake and went on a boat ride in hope to spot wildlife and listen to new bird species. But the forest was silent, and we did not see any animals the whole day. Is this park another sad example of the empty forest syndrome, a term describing the devastating effects of excessive hunting on wildlife populations?
The next day we were able to meet the head ranger, Hoàng Vân Kiên, whom we could interview with the help of a translator. We were very much looking forward to hearing about his view on the park and the rangers' role in protecting the wild species. Mr. Hoang expected us at the park headquarters, a rundown, plain building which looked far from anything official (in fact, it also does not have a sign so we cycled past it three times before recognizing it). The interview was a disappointment, as Mr. Hoang badly tried to convince us of the abundance of wildlife found in the park due to the good and effective work done to protect the area. He finished the interview with stating: "my hope for the future is to work in a park where poaching is kept to a minimum and wildlife is abundant." Walking out of the office I pondered this statement. It struck me odd, that the head ranger is very passionate about nature protection on the one side, but on the other side is so powerless to do so effectively. Maybe he is lacking resources tremendously and recieves little to no government support? This is an area where no NGO is active and tourism is an attractive source of income, even without wildlife. We can only hope, that the future will bring effective and radical changes towards wildlife protection.
The insights we have gained in Ba Be National Park would have not been possible without local support. We would like to sincerely thank Pham Vam Nam (Chief of Technical Section, Ba Be NP), Nguyen Dung Huu (Manager norther provinces, Fauna and Flora International) and Hoàng Vân Kiên (Head Park Rangers, Ba Be NP).