Visiting furry friends in rehab

(No.10, Vol.3, Nov 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


I get the impression these days that Vietnam is getting serious about protecting its wildlife. Of course, it is getting really late for some creatures, including some of the poster boys like the tiger (down to some thirty individuals) and elephants at around a mere fifty. Also, it is quite well-known that we said goodbye to the last of the Vietnamese rhinoceros in 2010. A few years ago, people were openly flouting the law by selling small furry creatures for pets outside Ho Chi Minh City’s Reunification Palace and in Vo Thi Sau, there was a small shop quite openly advertising bear bile by inviting customers to be sure that had the real deal by witnessing the creatures undergoing the excruciatingly painful extraction process. That the public is more aware of wildlife issues and that enforcement of law seems to be more prevalent may be to no small measure due to the work of organisations such as ‘Wildlife At Risk’ (W.A.R). I went along to visit their multi-species Wildlife Rescue Station out in the countryside of Cu Chi district, just within Ho Chi Minh City limits.
Perhaps the greatest risk that wildlife faces is from habitat loss due to human activities. However the animals at Cu Chi have mostly been rescued from illegal traders who had them destined for lives in cages as pets or, worse still, from being served on restaurant tables. Some are rescued from clandestine farms, as is the case of the moon and sun bears. Many will need hospital treatment and most will need training before being released back into the wild. I was intrigued to see a lone crocodile with beautiful blue patches on its skin and such lovely teeth here. I had thought that these were extinct in the wild in Vietnam. ‘Very nearly so,’ said my guide and manager Mr Le Xuan Lam, who went on to tell the reptilian’s story. Incredibly, he had been found by a monk, not in some remote swampy area like Can Gio or U Minh but in the grounds of a pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City’s Hoc Mon district! Quite what environmental problem had led him to venture into human territory we do not know, but luckily, he had chosen just the right people. People calling the attention of the centre to escaped pets are another source of inmates. There was a yellow billed hornbill there on the day I visited. I felt a little ashamed that, two years previously, I had, on several occasions, seen a pair of these in parks in district one and done nothing. ‘Next time, please report it to us’, requested Mr Lam.
The facility is, of course, not a zoo. Greater attention has been paid to recreate jungle conditions than at any zoo and the animals themselves have more room to move around than at most zoos. With netting covering the whole place, the hornbill could fly around at will. Birds are, in fact, the first animals you will see. Eagles, peacocks and pheasant species were there the day I went. Of course, a lot of people like to keep birds as pets. Unfortunately, many are threatened or endangered species. Alongside these were the bears. The saddest sight of all was one with a paw cut off for its supposed medicinal powers when macerated in wine. This poor innocent individual of course is condemned to life imprisonment here. A porcupine with its legs cut off will suffer the same fate. The poor thing is all alone for now as the batch of twenty he was with have all been returned to the wild. Happily, however, of all the individuals rescued since the centre was founded in 2005, more than half have been released. On another positive note, animals are actually born here via the captive breeding.

Elongated Tortoise


Photos: Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station

As you move further into the half hectare site, the most prominent animals in the large various enclosures, one of which is for the sick ones, are the species of monkeys and gibbons. These are happily swinging around with the gibbons quite literally hanging out and even one languor playing with a basketball. They are curious about visitors and will approach you. One reached out and picked a carelessly discarded plastic bottle with some juice still left in it which Mr Lam quickly confiscated. These animals are so much like humans it beats me how we can mistreat them, but then again, think of what we do to ourselves. Mr Lam himself commented as walked around - ‘Humans are the most dangerous animals.’
Among the other animals I saw were cobras and other reptiles, pygmy lorises (small, cute and furry but I was surprised to learn that they are actually primates), turtles, tortoises and pangolins. You will probably find the otters most entertaining as they scamper around playing their games. They do, however, make a terrible din and show their fearsome fangs when there are people around. These are lucky to be alive as they are traded for their fur and export to non-tropical countries.
As you might imagine, wildlife education is a major function of this unit, as well as increasing public awareness of the problems facing wildlife in South East Asia. This is clear from the plaques on enclosures naming sponsoring schools and universities, which gives them the right to choose names for individuals. There is a small exhibition hall explaining the suffering that human beings put endangered species through, including some stuffed animals that were not fortunate enough to have made it to here alive.
Conservation is also another important function of the station. There will be days when you will not be able to visit, as staff will be out in the field carrying out surveys on butterflies, bats, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, plants and orchids. These are conducted on Phu Quoc Island, Tho Chu island and Quang Ngai province in central Vietnam. The staff also produces publications of photographic guides on butterflies, birds, bats, orchids and fish.
In spite of this work being in the wide public interest, the centre gets very little public funding. However, there is plenty we can all do to support the work of this rehabilitation centre. W.A.R. - Wildlife at Risk - also has two other rescue centres. One is the ‘Cat Tien Bear and Wildcat Rescue Station’ and the other is the ‘Hon Me Wildlife Rescue Station’. You can donate money, equipment or medicines to W.A.R. at the address given below. You can also donate your time by working here as a paying volunteer. You can pay a fee to become a member or just to name an animal. You can sponsor a species, programme, or project. You can adopt an animal for a period of time or for life. Why not try to persuade your school, company or organisation to become a corporate sponsor? Finally do not hesitate to report any activity that contravenes Vietnam’s wildlife law to the numbers below and/or the forestry department.
I hope this will have inspired some to plan a visit. The station is very close to the world-renowned Cu Chi tunnels and you could plan to visit both attractions on the same trip. The cheapest way of getting there from Saigon is three bus tickets (VND7,000 one way). I took the number 4 bus from Ben Thanh market to the terminal at An Suong transferring to the number 122 to its terminal at Tan Quy and finally the number 70 to just north of Cho Cu village. The staff on the bus had not heard of the place, but a fellow passenger made sure I got off at the right stop. If I did not speak Vietnamese, this might have been difficult. There was very little waiting around and the trip took around two and a quarters hours one way. You will need to call ahead to fit your visit in with the very busy schedule of staff. A donation of minimum VND200,000 per person is expected.
At Sunday school as a very young child, I learned a lesson I took to heart-Be kind to dumb animals. The animals at Cu Chi rely on the kindness of strangers of the same species that mistreated them. They have had a narrow escape from suffering or death by the hands of humans. Their fairy tale ending will be not at Cu Chi where you can see them but when they are successfully released back into the wild. The Wildlife Station is doing important work preserving Vietnam’s living heritage and protecting the web of life of all species in the environment which ultimately of course includes us. It was a pleasure to meet the animals and may God speed them on their way. It was an honour to meet the heroic staff and may God bless them all.

Le Xuan Lam, manager of Cu Chi
Wildlife Rescue Station

Route 15 Cho Cu hamlet, An Nhon Tay
commune, Cu Chi District, HCMC
Tel: 0984 281 190

Further enquiries: WAR Office
202/10 Nguyen Xi Street, Ward 26, Binh Thanh District, HCMC . Tel: (08) 3899-7314

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