Police in Vietnam showed up at a private home last year to find what they had suspected: a menagerie of illegal pets, from a clouded leopard to flying squirrels. Acting on a tip, the police ended up with a haul of 16 wild animals in total that had made up the resident's personal zoo.
An environmental group, Education for Nature Vietnam, has been passing citizens' tips to police to fight wildlife trafficking, which it said is now more urgent because of COVID-19. As the world fights a virus passed from animals to humans, the organization has now released a report card on the Southeast Asian nation's success in its fight against the wildlife trade, not giving it the best grades.
Law enforcement acted on 84 percent of reported wildlife crimes in Vietnam but resolved 35 percent of the total in 2019, said the report, released last week. It recommended authorities respond more quickly to reports of crime before culprits can abscond with animals.
"Exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, the wildlife trade has no place in modern-day society and must be eradicated as soon as possible," Bui Thi Ha, who heads the organization's policy and legislation unit, said.
The trade, she said, "threatens public health worldwide."
Buffers to disease gone
Next door, in China, a human contracted the coronavirus from an animal, setting off the current pandemic. Scientists now believe the virus was probably passed from a bat to a pangolin, which was then touched by a human. Since then, Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, has echoed Beijing's efforts to crack down on the wildlife trade, particularly as the region acts as a hub for wildlife products that end up in China.
Education for Nature Vietnam said it hopes its report contributes to these efforts. The NGO receives an average of five tips a day on its wildlife crime hotline and then cooperates with law enforcement to resolve them. That cooperation helped Vietnam last year recover animals like gibbons, macaques and protected species like the endangered Indochinese box turtle.
Last year's case of 16 animals recovered in one home included two langurs, which is notable because primates are among the small minority of animals that can pass on viruses such as the coronavirus.
Criminals tipped off
Education for Nature Vietnam said it assessed 708 reports of wildlife crime across the nation's 63 provinces, calculating the percentage of times authorities responded to reports, confiscated wildlife products, and recovered live animals. The NGO said it was "alarming" that in some cases, multiple tips yielded no recoveries.
In one case, a tipster reported that two great hornbills were being kept at a pagoda, but police did not investigate for more than a month, the NGO said. The delay seems to have allowed the birds to be spirited away.
"Low success rates may be attributed to slow response, tipping off owners of establishments before the arrival of authorities, or in some cases, inaccurate or non-specific information provided by the public," the Education for Nature Vietnam report said, adding that "the low national success rate is of huge concern, and the group hopes law enforcement can increase the national average from 35 percent to at least 50 percent by the end of 2020."