As few as five tigers may remain in the wild in Vietnam, surviving in border areas of the central and northwest region of the country. However, ENV investigations have proven that the illegal tiger trade flourishes in Vietnam with a number of farms known to be selling tiger cubs and trading tiger bones and parts. These facilities smuggle tigers from Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand before slaughtering them for their parts or selling them to the highest bidder.
Tigers in Vietnam
Vietnam is home to the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti). This subspecies is also found in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and China.
The Indochinese tiger is protected under Vietnam’s wildlife protection laws Decree 64 (2019) and Decree 06 (2019), and banned from international commercial trade by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). It is illegal to hunt, trap, keep, kill, transport, sell or advertise tigers or tiger products in Vietnam.
The wild tiger population has declined 96% over the last hundred years. The International Tiger Coalition (ITC), representing organizations worldwide working to protect tigers, estimates there are ~3,900 tigers in the wild today. Experts estimate as few as five tigers may remain in the wild in Vietnam. In 2010, Vietnam lost its last rhino and many experts believe that the tiger is likely to be the next high-profile species to be declared extinct in Vietnam.
Threats to tigers
The biggest threats to Vietnam’s tigers are hunting and illegal trade. Tigers are mainly traded for their bones which are used to make traditional medicine; however, they are also consumed in wine containing whole tiger cubs or parts of tigers. Stuffed and mounted tigers, tiger skins, claws, and teeth are also highly valued as decorations and jewelry. Vietnam’s wild tiger populations are also threatened by habitat loss due to deforestation and the reduced number of large prey species, such as gaur and sambar deer, which they need to survive.
Tiger bone medicine
The most common use of tigers in Vietnam is to make tiger bone medicine, a form of traditional medicine used for the treatment of bone or joint-related ailments such as arthritis. The tiger bones are boiled down until they form a glue-like substance, which is then dried in cake-like blocks from which shavings are mixed with wine and consumed.
ENV’s investigations show that most consumers obtain tiger bone medicine through personal contacts, witnessing the tiger bone medicine-making process to assure authenticity of the product, and rarely purchasing products over the counter.
Tiger criminal networks in Vietnam
The tiger trade is unique when compared to the illegal trade of other wildlife in Vietnam, due to their rarity and high value. This often results in traders taking extra measures to assure secrecy in their dealings. Vietnam’s illicit tiger trade is carried out by elaborate criminal networks that avoid detection through the use of disposable cell phones, connections across international borders, and using friends in high places to facilitate a smooth and steady flow of their product to the consumer.
Most tigers confiscated in Vietnam originate from foreign sources, smuggled into Vietnam from Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand where major farming operations hunt, breed, and launder animals from the wild. A number of key figures behind the tiger trade in Vietnam have been identified by ENV but managed to avoid prosecution by distancing themselves from criminal activities or operating under protection of local officials. Prosecutions tend to target low-level figures involved in transport or organizing sales, and only a few of these prosecutions result in prison time.
In 2019, 414 tiger violations were recorded by ENV’s Wildlife Crime Unit. From these violations, 3 live tigers and 18 frozen tigers were confiscated, in addition to 3 tiger skeletons and 2 tiger trophies. More information on tiger cases in 2019 can be read in the latest ENV Wildlife Crime Bulletin.
Tiger farming in Vietnam
As of January 1, 2020, there are a total of 302 tigers recorded by ENV living in captivity in Vietnam, with 248 of these tigers in 17 privately owned farms and zoos in Vietnam. The remainder are kept at four government zoos and rescue centers.
Vietnam’s tiger farmers purchase most of their original tigers from illegal sources, including animals smuggled into Vietnam from Cambodia, Laos or Thailand, or possibly traded from tiger breeders in the south.
A small number of tiger farms in Vietnam are known to be selling tiger cubs and trading tigers which have been sourced from abroad. At present, tiger farming does not contribute to a significant part of the illegal trade, although there are concerns about the potential growth of tiger farming in Vietnam.
Preserving the last of Vietnam’s tigers
As a major consumer of the world’s tigers, Vietnam has a critical role to play both to preserve the last of our own tigers and to fulfill our responsibility to other tiger range countries by addressing the illegal trade of tigers and reducing consumer demand in Vietnam.
Tiger crimes need to be recognized and treated seriously, with law enforcement agencies targeting kingpins of the criminal networks and judicial bodies utilizing the full power of the law to prosecute major traders. Immediate action should also be taken to cease the development of tiger farming in Vietnam, including a freeze on breeding, while assessing the strategic importance of each farm in terms of its benefits to conservation.
What ENV is doing to protect tigers
ENV is working with law enforcement, government decision-makers, and the public to stop the illegal trade of tigers and prevent further development of commercial tiger farming in Vietnam. Our campaign activities include:
• Facilitating public reporting of tiger crimes through ENV’s Wildlife Crime Hotline and assisting law enforcement in addressing specific crimes reported to ENV
• Strengthening legislation and policy and advocating stronger support from key decision-makers in government relevant to the protection of tigers
• Carrying out a wide range of public awareness campaigns through radio, television and national media to increase awareness and participation amongst the general public to protect Vietnam’s tigers and reduce consumer demand
• Working with law enforcement agencies to gather intelligence on the key traders and the criminal networks they operate that are smuggling tigers into Vietnam
• Independent monitoring of all tiger farms and private zoos in Vietnam to suppress the growth of tiger farming activities and prevent leakage of captive born tigers into the trade
As part of an ongoing initiative aimed at raising awareness among government employees, ENV has partnered with a number of ministries at the central level and provincial agencies to place awareness banners in the main lobbies and entrances of government buildings. Banners have been placed prominently in 10 central ministries, in addition to 21 markets throughout Vietnam.
In our public awareness campaigns, ENV produces Public Service Announcements (PSAs) targeting consumers of products made from tigers and encouraging the public to report crimes relating to tigers and wildlife to ENV and local authorities. ENV’s latest tiger PSA, starring famous Vietnamese actor, Lan Huong, delivered the message “Tiger bone is not a gift.”
ENV also hosted Run for Tigers in December 2018 with Hanoi Half Marathon, Red River Runners, and Sporting Republic. The run raised awareness for tiger exploitation in Vietnam and was attended by over 750 people from 31 countries. Participants included diplomatic ambassadors, corporate supporters, fellow NGOs in Vietnam, Vietnamese celebrity TV Host, Mai Trang, and former Miss Vietnam, Nguyen Thu Thuy.