Reading the news is generally depressing, but few things have made me so sad recently as the announcement by the World Wildlife Fund in Vietnam that the last surviving Java rhinoceros in Vietnam was killed by poachers this year. The poor thing, forced to live all alone after every last one of his sisters and brothers, aunts uncles and cousins, mom and dad were killed by poachers. Finally he too succumbed, shot not for his meat, but for his horn, which supposedly has medicinal value to Chinese consumers. He was found dead, with a bullet in his leg and his horn cut off.
All across Vietnam, the natural environment is under unrelenting attack from development, poaching, pollution and habitat loss. You can see it everywhere you go – forests that used to be havens for millions of birds eerily quiet, coral reefs with nothing left but a few clown fish and dirty seaweed, streams and rivers stripped of all their resident life.
There used to be a glorious area north of Hanoi called Tam Dao National Park. The park is still there, but the number of birds you can see has dropped dramatically. In Tam Dao, there is a wonderful old hotel called the Mela, owned by an Algerian former diplomat named Mekki Salah. Over the past few decades, he has taken tens of thousands of pictures of the birds of Tam Dao, copies of which adorn the walls of the hotel. He told me over dinner one night that he hardly bothers to take any new photographs, since the chance he will spot a bird in the field has radically diminished in recent years. Instead, he pores over his old pictures, remembering the days when the trees were full of flash and color.
You can find wildlife in Tam Dao – birds and other animals are sold openly in the local markets, and are on the menus of the local restaurants, which otherwise feature the ubiquitous “su-su,” a sort of stringy spinach, and not much else. Forest rangers say they find tens of thousands of traps every year in national parks.
In one restaurant, I ordered a plate of deer grilled with ginger once. It cost three times as much as the pork or chicken, and tasted terrible. Deer aren’t an endangered species, and neither are the local turtles, but they will be soon if something doesn’t change. And for the record, turtle tastes awful too.
I taught one of my daughters to scuba dive in Vietnam, and she eventually got her open water certification in Hoi An. We later went diving in Da Nang and Quy Nhon, two towns with lovely beaches and coral reefs. Or should I say, former coral reefs. In both places, over-fishing and dynamite fishing has wrecked the reefs. There are a few places left in the country with moderately-healthy reefs, but most are like those in Quy Nhon – no more living reefs, just muddy sea floors littered with broken coral.
I was in a bar in Ho Chi Minh City a few months ago, having one of the local beers served over ice and eating boiled peanuts, when I got into a conversation with one of my neighbors. He told me about this new treat that had been popping up in local bars all over the city – fried water dragon. The water dragon is a cute little lizard often imported in the US as a pet. They are found near streams and rivers, and used to be plentiful. No more.
Once it became known that bar owners would buy the lizards when small to fry up and serve to customers, this became all the rage, and from what this guy was telling me, giant piles arrived in the city every day from the countryside. True or not, I’m not sure, but from what he told me, water dragons have been hard to find. They have basically been wiped out by hunters.
The Vietnam Red Book is a list of all the rare and endangered species in the country. I was horrified to learn just how many animals are in the book, and how many populations (elephants, tigers, guars, etc.) are down to just a few dozen members. It’s a tragic story; once those iconic animals are gone, they are never coming back.
I feel sad for the animals, but they are just the charismatic tip of the iceberg. The truth is that Vietnam isn’t all that healthy for humans either. Rampant pollution of the air and water has made breathing in the towns and drinking from the tap anywhere in the country hazardous. There is hope, of course, and many organization working to change things, but I’m in a bad mood today, so I’ll write about those efforts another time.