It’s Friday night in Hanoi, the bustling capital of Vietnam. Businessmen crowd the city’s restaurants, eager to impress colleagues by sparing no expense on culinary delicacies. While their counterparts in the West indulge in vintage wine and sirloin steak, the Vietnamese elite enjoy the meat of wild animals like deer, cobras and bears. The rarer the animal, the more sought after by restaurant-goers, thus driving up the price of these species. But for conservationists working to save Vietnam’s dwindling animal populations, such extravagant dinners only serve up disaster.
Commercial wildlife farming, or the breeding of wild species for legal sale, has been promoted as one strategy for solving the problem of wildlife consumption. Although wildlife farming has only recently become popular in tropical countries like Vietnam, conservationists say it is a potential way to satisfy consumer demand while relieving hunting pressure on wild animals.
Wildlife farming, however, does not address the underlying cultural forces behind wildmeat consumption in Asia, particularly the misconception that animals from the wild are somehow superior to their farmed cousins. Unlike regions such as Africa, where wildmeat serves as an important protein source, in Vietnam many people perceive it as a chic luxury food. Though caught illegally, the majority of animals in the wildlife trade wind up on the plates of wealthy restaurant patrons. Corrupt officials often frequent wildmeat restaurants, consuming the animals that they should be protecting, according to numerous reports by non-governmental agencies such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. According to a 2008 report published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, illegal wildlife consumers are predominantly “urban-based, wealthy, businessmen or governmental officials, and male.”
With a multi-million dollar industry at stake and centuries of tradition behind it, curtailing wildlife trade is anything but straightforward. “I hadn’t realized how difficult things were until I got out there,” says Emma Brooks, an International Union for Conservation of Nature program officer and one of a handful of conservationists currently working to keep Vietnam’s remaining wildlife off dinner plates.
Brooks’ research focuses on exposing the pros and cons of wildlife farming in Vietnam. Although Southeast Asian governments have encouraged wildlife farming for the past decade, a recent study by Brooks was one of the first to put the farms’ success to the test, using porcupines as a study species. Posing as researchers investigating the benefits of porcupine farming to help poor communities, Brooks and her Vietnamese assistant conducted surveys with managers of nearly 70 porcupine farms and owners of nine wildmeat restaurants.
Brooks’ results show that wildlife farming seems to be having the opposite of its intended effect. She concludes in an August 2010 paper in Biological Conservation that wildlife farming is not only failing to protect porcupines—it actually seems to be harming them. Although Vietnamese law requires that farm managers raise porcupines exclusively from farm-bred stock, 58 percent of the managers admitted to illegally using wild porcupines on their farm. Moreover, 67 percent of managers said that wild porcupines have disappeared entirely from local forests where they were formerly caught. Instead, illegal hunters now trap porcupines almost exclusively from the forests of other Vietnamese provinces and from neighboring Laos to meet farm demand. Having emptied their own surrounding forests of wild porcupines, farm managers seeking to expand their porcupine stock with wild animals must now purchase animals from illegal hunters traveling further and further afield to capture their porcupine prey.
Brooks also discovered that farmed porcupines do not even provide a cheaper alternative to wild-caught porcupines for restaurants, which was an original objective for wildlife farming. Farmed porcupines are supposed to be sold to restaurants, she says, but at the moment are simply being circulated to other farms as breeding stock. Moreover, most restaurants still opt for wild-caught porcupines because their patrons seem to prefer truly wild animals, according to Brooks and other researchers based in Vietnam. “Even the restaurant owners said there wasn’t a difference in quality,” Brooks says, “people just think there is.” But regardless of the reality, customer demand ultimately drives commodity. “Most people in Vietnam believe that captive animals are of lower quality than wild-caught ones because they think that in the wild animals eat natural foods so they are very good for our health,” said Thai Van Nguyen, an officer at the non-profit Vietnam Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program. In order for wildlife farms to be a success, the underlying cultural drivers behind wildmeat consumption must be reformed, he said.
Nguyen agrees with Brooks’ conclusions about the inefficiency of wildlife farming. Nguyen, who has had experience working with wildlife farmers as well as police, says that farmers lack basic breeding knowledge, meaning that many animals bred in captivity become diseased or die. Law enforcement officers often cannot distinguish between wild and captive-bred porcupines, he adds, making it difficult for police to identify criminals. A complete change in thinking is necessary, Nguyen says.
Brook’s results can be applied to farmed species other than porcupines. “Farming in general is taking off throughout Vietnam,” Brooks says, but if it’s done it should be done right. Tim McCormack, coordinator of the non-profit Asian Turtle Program in Hanoi, agrees with Brooks and explains that for slow-growing animals like turtles, the situation is plagued by even more problems. The years of effort to raise animals like turtles would never permit farming to be cheaper than taking them from the wild, McCormack says. For the time being McCormack thinks wildlife farming in general “is very dangerous,” creating a situation where people cannot distinguish between which animals are legal and which are illegal, and which should and should not be eaten.
Farming of critically endangered crocodiles in neighboring Cambodia also sheds light on the predicament. The practice is “heralded as a success story” but wild animals are still exploited, says Sharon Brooks (no relation to Emma Brooks), a United Nations Environment Program officer who has carried out work on Cambodian crocodile trade. She adds that effective law enforcement is crucial but often governments cannot provide it. A number of strategies are needed to address the problem, she says, from changing people’s ideas to bolstering law enforcement.
“You’re dealing with a lot of different dynamics so you can’t have a blanket solution across Asia,” says Sharon Brooks, whose views do not represent those of the United Nations Environment Program.
Despite the discouraging findings, Emma Brooks remains optimistic. “Some people think farming porcupines is good for conservation,” she says. “Even though their definition of conservation is completely wrong, at least they’re trying.” While Brooks’ study reveals the ugly truths behind wildlife farming, understanding the problem is a necessary first step to improving it. Wildlife farming can work in some places, Brooks says, but not yet in Vietnam.