HANOI––The good news for animals emerging from Vietnam in early 2015 is that the bad news made big news; much of the Vietnamese public responded with shock and outrage; mainstream Vietnamese media amplified the protest; and top-ranking political office holders took notice.
The bad news during the last few days of January and first four days of February 2015 could scarcely have been grimmer.
First Vietnamese media and the Animals Asia Foundation disclosed that 13 bears had starved to death at the Cau Trang Bear Farm in Halong Bay, where five other bears starved in November 2014.
Then, on January 30, 2015, both local and global media documented the public sacrifice of two pigs at Nem Thuong. The pigs were paraded on carts through the village, then hacked in half with machetes so that viewers could soak bank notes in their blood as a New Year’s Day ritual meant to ensure good luck during the coming year.
Finally, Vietnamese officials on February 4, 2015 acknowledged that as many as 1,000 sickly cats had been buried alive in Dong Da district near the Chinese border, after having been seized from smugglers who trucked them in from China to sell for human consumption.
Bear bile market crashed
The story behind the story in each instance is more encouraging.
Bears are starving at the Cau Trang Bear Farm because the market for bear bile products has crashed, under continuing pressure from the Animals Asia Foundation, which has since 2005 operated a Vietnam Bar Rescue Center in Tam Do.
“Nearly 2,000 bears remain in cages in Vietnam being farmed for their bile for use in traditional medicine,” summarized an Animals Asia Foundation media release, but the practice is on the way out.
“Bear bile farming technically became illegal in 1992 when Ministry of Forestry approval became necessary to keep bears,” recounted the AAF release. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has protected bears since 2002, “making their exploitation strictly illegal,” AAF continued. “However it wasn’t until 2005 that the first species-specific regulations were enacted.
“Eyes of the country now on Quang Ninh”
“Animals Asia is now pressing the Vietnamese government,” the media release pledged, “to allow it to bring all 23 remaining bears in the Halong City area to the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre.
Said Animals Asia Vietnam director Tuan Bendixsen, “The eyes of the country are now on Quang Ninh province,” where the bears died, “and on the relevant authorities to see that right course of action is taken. We cannot be sure of the exact details surrounding the bears’ deaths but we can say the farmer chose to let them die. We offered to treat the animals and the offer was rejected. It was the farmer who took the decision to let the animals die. It was a conscious choice. We can only speculate as to his motives.”
Added Bendixsen, “The Central Forest Protection Department has informed Animals Asia that it is urgently requesting that the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development form an investigation team. The team would travel to Quang Ninh province to investigate the exact causes of death, whether the correct procedures were followed to dispose of the bodies, and to ascertain how the remaining bears can be saved.
“Concerned that the bears are being slaughtered for parts for use in traditional medicine, authorities have also ordered that TV cameras cover their burial, as interest in the case continues to grow in Vietnam,” Bendixsen finished.
Chinese media made pig killing an issue
The Nem Thuong pig slaughter festival first came to international notice, and first drew protest, after video of the 2011 slaughter aired in China. The Chinese media notice brought the pig slaughter festival to the attention of the Animals Asia Foundation, which works in both China and Vietnam. The Animals Asia Foundation has been escalating attention to the pig-hacking since 2012.
The Nem Thuong ritual killing differs from traditional slaughter in that the Nem Thuong slaughtermen attempt to cleave the tied and spread-eagled pig in half through the midsection––and the killing is done before an audience.
Chinese agribusiness slaughtered 483 million pigs in 2013, Vietnamese agribusiness slaughtered 26 million, and U.S. agribusiness slaughtered 65 million.
Yet the bloody deaths of the Nem Thuong pigs, when exposed, shocked the Vietnamese public to the extent that 79% of the readers of one Vietnamese media web site reportedly expressed disapproval of the killing.
“Limit uncultured & uncivilized acts”
“Living in this civilized world, we should support cultural and civilized activities and limit uncultured and uncivilized acts,” Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports, & Tourism spokesperson Phan Dinh Tan told the official Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
Announced minister of Culture, Sports & Tourism minister Hoang Tuan Anh himself, after an interval for deliberation, “The ministry has decided that negative activities such as buffalo stabbing and pig chopping in festivals will be reviewed. In a country rich in tradition and culture, we cannot have the image of a pig being brought to a village center for hundreds of people to witness its head being cut off and its blood pouring out. This is not suitable in a peaceful and hospitable country like Vietnam.”
Commented Bendixsen, “This is an enormously positive move from the highest levels of Vietnamese governance. It shows that the country is listening and reacting to the will of the people. Now we must continue to monitor the situation. Our work will go on behind the scenes,” Bendixsen pledged, “to ensure that the barbaric scenes of this year are not repeated in the next.”
Cat case horrified the nation
The live burial of the interdicted cats likewise attracted strong public protest from within Vietnam, after the An Ninh Do newspaper published photographs of the smugglers’ truck with cats’ paws and tails poking out from tightly packed bamboo baskets.
Many cats, An Ninh Do said, had already asphyxiated. Others were visibly ill.
“After receiving a tip, we searched the truck and discovered the cats inside,” Dong Na District deputy police chief Cao Van Loc told the DPA news agency. “The owner, who was also the driver, said he bought the cats at the border area. All of cats were from China.”
That triggered alarm in a region on high alert because of recent human deaths from the H5N1 and H7N9 highly pathogenic avian influenzas, and still mindful of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed 774 people worldwide in 2003, after spreading through live markets from civet cats (not actually felids, but widely believed to be cats nonetheless.) (See http://www.animals24-7.org/2015/02/19/high-pathogenic-avian-flu-hits-u-s-through-backyard-flocks/.)
The Animals Asia Foundation pleaded to be given the surviving cats, to no avail.
“The cats that were buried were dealt with in accordance with the law because they posed an environmental and health risk,” a police officer told Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The police officer “confirmed that live cats were buried but was uncertain how many,” Associated Press said.
Three tons of cats would have been 6,000 pounds, or about 1,000 cats if the cats weighed six pounds on average.
“Cat meat is easily available in some restaurants in Vietnam, especially in the north near the Chinese border,” Associated Press continued, “even though the government in 1998 ordered such restaurants closed and banned the trade of cats because they are a predator to rats, which destroy crops.”
Fined four months’ income
The truck driver was fined 7.5 million dong for smuggling the cats, amounting to about $360, or four months’ income for the average Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, and Cambodian governments on February 28, 2014 agreed on plans to intercept traffic in dogs for slaughter along the Vietnamese/Laotian border and the Thai/Laotian border, two weeks after the Vietnamese Department of Animal Health on February 13, 2014 ordered provincial authorities to enforce a five-year moratorium on transborder transport of dogs.
Partially implementing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations strategy for eradicating canine rabies by 2020, the moratorium was reinforced in Vietnam by a prohibition of movements of dogs and cats across local district boundaries.
The Dong Na incident was among the first indications that the prohibition is being enforced.
(See also “Update on Halong Bay bears,” Update on Halong Bay bears, and http://www.animals24-7.org/2014/08/08/update-from-vietnam/.)