About 6 months ago, I decided to go to Vietnam to have a first overview of the local population of binturongs and to understand how much the local populations knew about them. The association did not get the funds for this trip, so I bought the plane tickets myself and boarded a Paris-Hanoi plane in September 2015.
Vietnam and the binturong (Cầy mực):
Two days after my arrival, I left hectic Hanoi for the Cuc Phuong national park, #1 national park in Vietnam and the biggest natural reserve in the country.
After 3 hours in a minibus and 30 minutes under the rain on a motorbike taxi, I arrived in what seemed to be a haven of peace. I decided to explore the surroundings and discovered that the park consisted of a main road surrounded by the forest. This forest was not a simple forest; it was a primary forest, still untouched and pure, with vegetation so dense that it makes it difficult to move around and to see animals.
I spent a lot of time asking questions to villagers and guides, showing them pictures of binturongs: “Do you know this animal? Do you know the Cầy mực?“. In the park, except for “Save Vietnam’s Wildlife” members, only two young ladies actually recognized the animal. They also pointed at trees, which might mean that some binturongs could still be inhabiting Cuc Phuong, although it is impossible to say it with certainty. The other persons I interviewed told me they had never seen such an animal, or that they had last seen it 10 years ago. They think that the Cầy mực has disappeared from their forest.
During my stay at Cuc Phuong, I convinced myself that binturongs still inhabited the reserve and I started imagining reasons why we could not see them:
– The primary forest is so difficult to explore, that only a few persons (including among local populations) actually go in it.
– Despite the fact that binturongs often go on the ground to go from one tree to another, they are nocturnal/crepuscular animals and spend most of their days sleeping on top of a tree. It is therefore rare to observe them during the day.
– Binturongs also usually stay away from villages; they probably mostly live in forests where humans do not go.
Since I haven’t had the chance to see a binturong in the forest, I had to stick to my conjectures until the end of my stay.
A few days after I left Cuc Phuong, the same scenario occurred at the Cat Ba national park. Just like in Cuc Phuong, big panels with binturongs’ pictures describe the animal as being one of the inhabitants of the forest. Unfortunately, I only stayed there half a day and the few locals I actually met (including my guide), told me they did not know this animal.
I shall keep a very good memory of natural reserves in Vietnam. However, outside of these natural reserves, it becomes really difficult to observe wild animals. I was particularly attracted by Sapa region: beautiful landscapes, rice fields in the middle of nature and yet, in 4 days, I only saw Egretta Intermedia (intermediate egret).My guide told me that she never saw a wild carnivorous animal in these forests. Absurd? Maybe not. Except for protected species, Vietnam suffers from a strong diminution of its fauna and flora. Despite the red list of threatened species, created by the government, poaching and traffic of wild animals is still a big issue in Vietnam. Binturongs are part of this red list, but there hasn’t been any census information update since 2004. Have traffic and deforestation made binturongs disappear? This is a possibility.
Fortunately, the new Vietnamese generation is increasingly sensitive to the subject of environment and nature protection in Vietnam. The new communication means (smartphones, TV, the internet…) have had strong influences on this. During my trip, I met younger people, more aware of this subject than their elders and ready to change things. They know that they have to fight to protect the local fauna. Mentalities are changing, more and more people are fighting against poaching and animal traffic. Organizations such as “Save Vietnam’s Wildlife” are doing their best to help this generation take action.
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW):
This trip was a good opportunity for me to meet the main members of this association for the first time, people with whom I had had several email exchanges before.
SVW is a non-profit organization protecting endangered species in Vietnam. They fight against illegal trade by doing education and awareness campaigns. They also work with the police. SVW works since its creation with “Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program” (CPCP, created in 2007). CPCP is a conservation program for all the species of small carnivorous animals in Vietnam. Today, they focus on saving, rehabilitating and freeing small animals threatened by the illegal trade of wild animal species. They also develop breeding programs, for example for the Owston’s civet.
For more than 15 years now, illegal trade is a reality is the whole world. Currently, the most popular species among traffickers in Asia is a small carnivorous animal that few people are familiar with: the pangolin. Although this traffic was declared illegal in 2000 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it is growing steadily and has a strong impact on pangolin populations in Asia and Africa. There are 8 species of pangolin in the world – all are considered threatened, however the two pangolins species found in Vietnam, the Sunda and Chinese pangolin, are Critically Endangered. These small mammals have been poached for their scales, which are said to have curative properties, as well as for their meat. One pangolin can be sold for $1000. Captured pangolins are brought to the selling point in tight nets, without any water or food for days; many of them do not make it alive.
SVW plays an important role in the fight against this illegal trade, it is its leader. SVW’s offices are located in the Cuc Phuong national park, which allows them to retrieve the animals saved from the hands of traffickers, to rehabilitate them and then to free them in safe natural habitats. During my visit, more than 20 pangolins were being rehabilitated in adapted structures before they could be freed.
Pangolins are at the heart of SVW’s fight, but their center also welcomes other species which sometimes stay there on the long-term. It is the case for example of 3 binturongs. One of the biggest threats that binturongs face, other than deforestation, is the traffic of wild animals, destined to become pets in households. Mister B for example, a binturong saved in 2007, had spent 14 years in a hotel, locked in a small cage. It was an attraction for clients. Today, Mister B lives in the center, in a pen which is a lot more adapted for its needs. The animal is too used to the presence of human beings, and could not survive in its natural habitat if it were to be released.
For several months now, SVW’s teams have been working on the construction of new buildings, including bigger pens with more vegetation.
SVW is also working on a new education center for the public: the Pangolin and Small Carnivore Education Center. The concept is brand new. Visitors, thanks to interactive and immersive experiments, will be able to explore and understand the Vietnamese fauna.
The building is built, but SVW needs more funds to develop the necessary educational tools for the total immersion of visitors.
Today, “Save Vietnam’s Wildlife” needs your help to finish the construction of the center, especially for the creation of the tools dedicated to developing the awareness of populations and to educating them. If, like me, you believe in their project, do not hesitate to participate in their financing campaign via this link: https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/311Fd5/ab/84zx7a
To conclude, this trip allowed me to understand what the reality of the field is like. I am more and more convinced that the protection of a species and the development of the knowledge around a species need to take place directly in the regions where this species lives. This is also true for the development of the awareness of local populations.
I arrived in Vietnam with dozens of questions and left with thousands. Where to start? Should I be looking for binturongs in an environment where they are probably already extinct? Should I go in a country where I am sure to find binturongs? Is a 6 month camera trapping in Vietnam a good idea? What about training and paying a student to gather data on the field? Or maybe I should take an unpaid leave to do it myself? So many questions have gotten me thinking about a new trip and finding sponsors for the realization of ABConservation’s goals: develop the knowledge around binturongs, study and protect them and raise awareness among the general public in Asia on the protection of their environment.