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Vietnam Squanders Treasure


Dalat, Vietnam. -- At a specialty restaurant on the outskirts of this once-verdant French hunting resort I am offered snake, monkey, deer and, yes, even tiger meat for lunch. In a nearby cage a flat-nosed bear lies mournfully. Above him deer carcasses hang on metal hooks, attracting blue bottle flies, while out back, dead tigers and leopards are being stuffed by a taxidermist in exaggerated poses of ferocity.

Home to some of the world's most spectacular wildlife, Vietnam is losing her priceless treasures. One out of three of Vietnam's 73 million residents makes a living from forestry or forest-related products, and the population is expected to reach 100 million by early next century. According to Dr. Trung Nguyen, director of Hanoi's Institute of Ecological Economy, by this century's end there won't be any forest left, let alone wildlife.

Ironically, as Vietnam's forest disappears, two of the world's seven newly discovered mammal species were found in the last two years in Vietnam: the Kouprey Ox and the Sao La dagger-horned goat. Their chances for survival are viewed as slim.

"Vietnam is a country full of contradictions," says Dr. Nguyen."We hold unknown treasures but we're about to squander them away without so much as a second glance." Indeed, as Vietnam's economy booms and construction reaches an all-time high, the Institute -- the only serious effort to educate Vietnamese on environmental issues -- receives less than $3,000 a year from the government.

It used to be that Vietnamese, unlike Westerners, viewed people as inseparable from nature. They taught their children to revere the spirits that protected forests and rivers, and often named their children after forest animals. Vietnamese poetry and folklore are full of descriptions of nature and her mysteries. Buddhist and Taoist temples were places not simply for worship but for learning the ecological balance between man and the land. Visit these temples and you can still see exquisite carvings of elephants, turtles, fish, tigers and birds gracing the columns, ceilings and gates.

Today while many Vietnamese still look to forest animals for certain physical powers -- longevity, fertility, intelligence, internal strength -- their attitude has changed. The rhinoceros, tigers and elephants they long valued or feared in their entirety have now been reduced to commodities -- bones, claws, horns, fur.

I have seen countless Vietnamese with baskets of monkeys, wild birds, and various wildlife parts on their backs trekking across the border to China. There these creatures are turned into pills and powders and soups and special drinks to be sold in the herbal and speciality shops of Hong Kong and Taipei. In Saigon, rare tortoise shells are turned into beautiful lacquer wares and purses for sale to tourists. In Hanoi, opium pipes made of elephant tusks are sold for less than $20.

Killing for meat in agrarian cultures never threatened wildlife with extinction the way the growing appetite among the affluent of Hong Kong, Beijing, Saigon and Bangkok now does for tiger bones and rhinoceros horns.

Yet the East Asian middle classes who populate the glass high-rises and cruise the double-tiered freeways of these cities have little sense of the affront their new lifestyles pose to nature. After two thousand years of an agrarian based civilization, they have rushed into a consumerist way of life with little moral or spiritual reflection. Yet it is not an exaggeration to say that the ancient spiritual tie that held the people of this region to the land is being severed for good.

In his prophetic short story called "Salt of the Forest," the renowned Vietnamese writer Nguyen Huy Thiep describes a complex relationship between a Vietnamese hunter and a monkey in a haunted forest. Through a series of blunders, the hunter inadvertently shoots the animal with a gun given him by his son in Europe. He bandages the monkey but leaves it wounded. He, himself, leaves the forest naked and without his new gun.

It is a story about ignorance and regret and a valiant if inept effort at redemption, but it is a pessimist's vision. For if the spiritual tie is severed, both man and animal end up in a worse place than before man entered the forest with a foreign weapon he couldn't control.

Andrew Lam, a Vietnamese-born writer now based in San Francisco, is an editor for Pacific News Service.

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