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Here's What You Can Buy to Celebrate New Year in Vietnam: Bear Paw, Pangolin, and Snake Wine

As the Tet holiday gets underway, the country's wealthy and growing middle class are consuming products made from endangered species, despite a ban and stricter law enforcement.

by Mark Scialla
Feb 8 2016, 4:20pm

Pangolin scales are easily found for sale in Hanoi. (Photo by Mark Scialla)

Only after dusk do the shops selling wildlife wine open for business in Danang, and during the Vietnamese New Year business is good.

Wines made from whole or parts of wild animals are popular holiday gifts for those who can afford them. Despite a ban on selling trafficked wildlife, it's pretty easy to find homebrew in which the featured ingredients are severed bear paws or gibbons clutching their surgically removed stillborns.

In one busy shop, shelves are lined with vats containing herbs, fish, lizards, or unborn farm animals like goats and horses. If you're looking for top shelf drink, you've got to ask.

Upstairs from the storefront in central Danang, Vietnam's third largest city, the shopkeeper unveils his special stock: a wine jar stuffed with a pangolin — a sort of anteater with scales but critically endangered — and another jar containing a coiled King Cobra, upright and hood out. "The straight posture is beautiful, especially for a gift," he said. "I had two jars. I sold the other as a gift for 5 million dong ($224)."

Video stills show pangolin wine for sale in Danang.

In a country where the average monthly income is $150, these are luxury items for the wealthy and rising middle class. There's a common belief that the wines have medicinal properties, but buyers are more often attracted to the exclusivity of the product.

"There's a lot of peer pressure," said Madelon Willemsen, head of office for TRAFFIC Vietnam, which monitors the wildlife trade. "It's very important what your friends, family, and boss think of you. Gifting something rare that is seen as precious is really important."

There's no data to show how much consumption spikes during Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, but observers say it happens. The Communist Party of Vietnam even issued a condemnation of consuming wildlife ahead of last year's Tet.

"Businessmen and government officers are the main consumer," said Le Thi Trang, a trafficking specialist with the Vietnamese conservation group, GreenViet. "They buy it for a special day to give it to their boss or their partner, or for Tet holiday they might have a big party with wild meat for good luck in new year.

The global illicit wildlife trade is worth an estimated $10 billion, not including illegal logging and fishing, according to TRAFFIC. While other Southeast Asian countries are involved, Vietnam is key. It's a hub for trafficked wildlife heading to China from Africa and other parts of Southeast Asia.

In 2015, Danang customs seized more than four tons of ivory and pangolin scales, and more than 300 pounds of rhino horn. In northern Vietnam, police intercepted last week a truckload of 80 pangolins bound for China. High-profile busts are common, and it highlights government efforts to fight wildlife crime. While Vietnam is getting better at finding contraband at the borders, it's failing to disrupt domestic networks and prosecute kingpins.

"The law enforcement in Vietnam around wildlife trade is virtually non existent," said Willemsen. "Customs has done some great seizures, but most of the seizures don't result in convictions. Less than one percent have resulted in convictions."

This video still shows a jar of king cobra wine for sale at a shop in Danang. 

Many of the animals consumed in Vietnam are domestic, since it's one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Its remote nature reserves are ground zero for the wildlife racket.

"During my investigations in central Vietnam, I can see at each nature reserve there's at least 40 traders, and every trader, has at least 20 hunters working for her," said Le. "The wildlife consumption, the wildlife sale, the wildlife trade and activities, it's now so popular and we do not have enough rangers to stop it."

There are signs Vietnam is bending to international pressure to curb wildlife crime. It's hosting a conference on the international wildlife trade in November. And amendments to trafficking laws will come into effect in July that will levy strict punishment for wildlife crime. Violators could be fined from $200 to more than $2,000, and get up to 3 years in prison.

The new laws will test Vietnam's commitment to ending wildlife crime. The country will have to choose between ignoring the destructive appetites of the elite, or protecting its rich and rare biodiversity. 

Related: Hong Kong Says It's Going to Ban Its Trade in Ivory and Elephant Trophies

Follow Mark Scialla on Twitter: @markscialla

Photos by Mark Scialla

Tagged:
Vietnam
endangered species
asia & pacific
traffic
tet
Pangolin
wildlife trafficking
new year
snake wine
bear paw