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Vietnam’s wild tigers are extinct, but it still has a role to play in saving them

After a recent damning investigation into tiger trafficking in Vietnam, World Wildlife Fund's Heather Sohl writes that despite its wild tiger population being extinct, the country still has a role to play in the animal's conservation through curbing demand for tiger products

Heather Sohl
March 14, 2021
Vietnam’s wild tigers are extinct, but it still has a role to play in saving them
Three seized tiger carcasses are laid on the ground in Nghe An province on May 28, 2012. Photo: AFP

Tiger bone “glue” is as grisly as it sounds. Made by boiling down tiger bones over a long period of time, it is peddled by illegal wildlife* traders as a health tonic. In Vietnam, it is the most popular of all tiger products. And as recently exposed in Dan Viet’s investigative project which successfully infiltrated illegal tiger trafficking networks, the market for these products is very much alive and well.

Due to poaching and habitat loss, tigers are functionally extinct in Vietnam. This means the current demand in Vietnam for products such as tiger bone glue is most likely satiated by illegal trade from “tiger farms”, but this demand also serves to increase poaching pressure on the estimated 3,900 tigers remaining elsewhere in the wild, as exposed in a recent investigation by Dan Viet. This is why WWF is calling for the phasing out of tiger farms in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos where over 8,000 tigers are estimated to be held in captivity.

The Vietnamese government must take a two-pronged approach to shut this trade down: stronger regulation, monitoring and enforcement; and reducing the demand for tiger products. 

On paper, Vietnam’s national wildlife laws are mostly in compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, known under its acronym CITES – a global agreement among governments to ensure international trade in plant and animal species, including tigers, doesn’t threaten their survival in the wild. But as the seizures in Dan Viet’s recent investigation demonstrate, Vietnam’s captive tigers are still ‘leaking’ into the illegal market. Indeed, Vietnam is one of seven countries that are under scrutiny from CITES for having so-called “tiger farms” and for years has received warnings to control them.

Demand for tiger products in Vietnam remains strong, with a 2017 consumer survey from TRAFFIC showing that 6% of respondents had used tiger products

Improving legislation and stronger enforcement are key to shutting the trade down. This includes more robust record keeping and management of captive tigers and using tools such as DNA and stripe pattern photos from facilities and seizures to aid law enforcement efforts, by tracing the tiger back to its source.  

Following a Directive from the Prime Minister in July 2020, Vietnam began a review of some captive tiger facilities in Binh Duong province. This is a good first step that must be scaled up to include records of all captive tigers in Vietnam. Authorities must apply a stronger management system for the oversight of the keeping, breeding and disposal of captive tigers, while also reducing Vietnam’s captive tiger population over time to a more manageable level and clearly confining this captive breeding to conservation purposes. 

Effective enforcement should also incorporate an intelligence-led approach to investigations, targeting the key players in the criminal networks, with any arrests and seizures followed by strong prosecutions. 

In addition to improved enforcement, the demand for tiger products must also be reduced.

Demand for tiger products in Vietnam remains strong, with a 2017 consumer survey from TRAFFIC showing that 6% of respondents had used tiger products and that 64% of them would recommend tiger products to others – a huge number if extrapolated across Vietnam’s population of 96 million. Some efforts are being made on this front: in December last year, TRAFFIC launched a three-year social marketing programme aiming to reduce demand for tiger products in Vietnam. 

Actions such as this must accelerate across the country. As one of several linchpins in the global wildlife trade, Vietnam must act urgently if we are to have any chance of reducing poaching pressure on the world’s remaining wild tigers.

Heather Sohl is the Tiger Trade Lead for World Wildlife Fund Tigers Alive Initiative

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