A sanctuary for Earth's smaller creatures

How one organisation is helping conserve Viet Nam's wildlife

Have you ever heard of a pangolin?

They're a small mammal, but you would be forgiven for mistaking them for some sort of reptile; rolled up into a ball as a characteristic defence mechanism, their jagged-tipped scales make them look like very large artichokes. 

Elephants, rhinoceroses and tigers may be the poster children for poaching, but it is these mysterious pine cone-scaled insectivores that win the dubious honour of being the most-trafficked mammal family in the world.

Some of them get lucky. Someone sees the restrictive mesh bags often used to transport them and reports the breach of international law. If those reports are made in Viet Nam, it's doubly lucky for the pangolins, since they may then find themselves in the hands of a non-profit determined to return them, safe and sound, to the wild.

Saving Viet Nam's Wildlife

Save Vietnam's Wildlife (SVW) is a Vietnamese non-profit, non-governmental organisation (NGO), formally established in July 2014, with a mission of conserving Viet Nam’s threatened wildlife species. Located in Cuc Phuong National Park, Ninh Binh province, SVW focuses on small carnivores and pangolins. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), for which IUCN is a partner in the Indo-Burma region, is supporting SVW's efforts through its small grants facility.

In Viet Nam, pangolins are primarily in demand for their meat; in China, their scales are thought to have medicinal value.

© Liam Hughes / IUCN Viet Nam

Even though the medicinal value of their scales has not been scientifically proven, the demand for meat and scales has caused the two Asian species - the Sunda and the Chinese pangolin - to be hunted to the point where they are both classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. 

A lot of SVW's work, therefore, revolves around the conservation of these two species.

At the heart of the organisation is the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme (CPCP), which is run in partnership with Cuc Phuong National Park. CPCP receives confiscated small carnivores and pangolins from the wildlife trade. 

Rescue and rehabilitation

Currently, CPCP is the only rescue centre in Viet Nam that can successfully reintroduce pangolins. Since August 2016, they have released 295 back into the wild.

They have also partnered with two smaller rescue centres in Soc Son and Pu Mat National Park. In 2016, they successfully helped the rescue centre in Soc Son release 53 pangolins.

CPCP currently holds eight different species of carnivore and pangolin, many of which are vulnerable or endangered. 

"We look to release every animal back into the wild after thoroughly researching suitable areas. We also make sure all animals undergo health and behavioural checks to maximise their chances of survival in the wild." – Kim Hai Lam, Veterinarian, SVW

Every animal rescued has to undergo a month in the CPCP quarantine building to ensure that it is free of diseases that could weaken its wild counterparts and the species as a whole.

© Liam Hughes / IUCN Viet Nam

The organisation often finds itself over capacity. In April 2017, CPCP had 139 pangolins, when they only had facilities for 64. This resulted in the survival rate dropping to 50-60% from the usual 70%, which is significant for a critically endangered species.

"The law in Viet Nam prevents animals from being released until their traders have been prosecuted. This can take up to two years and reinforces the problem. We are thus planning on increasing our quarantine capacity and have also been working with authorities to change the law so that we can release the animals sooner." – Phuong Tran Quang, CPCP Manager

Some individuals cannot be reintroduced, due to physical and behavioural limitations. For example, one baby pangolin that was recently rescued has spent too much time around humans and not enough time around others of its own species. The organisation will try to socialise it with an adult pangolin, but chances are that it will be too familiar with humans to be reintroduced into the wild.

Animals that cannot be reintroduced give the public the chance to view rare species up close. SVW has ensured that the enclosures mimic wild habitats as closely as possible and the tours are used to inspire and educate visitors on the importance of conservation. These tours also generate income for SVW.

Education, awareness and advocacy

"Viet Nam desperately needs to increase people's understanding of nature; 90% of the population wasn’t aware that two species of pangolin occurred in the area, and 50% didn’t even know what a pangolin was."      – Lan Thi Kim Ho, Education Outreach Manager, SVW.

CPCP houses a large interactive education centre on Viet Nam's carnivores and pangolins.

© Liam Hughes / IUCN Viet Nam

SVW raises awareness within the Cuc Phuong community. They have recently completed 50 educational trips for over 1,200 children and are in the process of evaluating and expanding the project. The hope is that experiencing the wildlife for themselves will inspire in students a long-term love of nature and a desire to help conserve it.

SVW also focuses heavily on advocacy. It often runs training workshops for police, customs officials and rangers that not only focus on how to tackle issues such as poaching and wildlife trade, but also on why it is important to tackle these issues at all.

In 2015, SVW successfully changed a policy that allowed pangolin scales to be claimed on health insurance.

Currently, SVW is working on increasing the punishment for laying snares from a small fine to something more severe.

Snares are extremely harmful to wildlife, cheap to make and highly effective; stronger sanctions are necessary to discourage their use.

© Liam Hughes / IUCN Viet Nam


SVW also runs a breeding programme for the Endangered Owston's palm civet.

© Liam Hughes / IUCN Viet Nam

The programme has so far bred over 70 individuals and confiscated a further 18, and had a release programme prior to 2003.

Two outbreaks of avian influenza, in 2005 and 2008, decimated the captive population. In response, CPCP - which was then called the Owston's Civet Project - sent three pairs of civets to Newquay Zoo in the UK in order to ensure that there would be two captive populations in the world. There are currently 12 Owston's palm civets in the CPCP centre; reintroduction will begin again once the captive population is stable.

Field and species research

A major part of field and species research includes researching suitable areas for reintroduction, and captive behavioural and reproductive research on Sunda and Chinese pangolins.

© Save Vietnam's Wildlife

The research is conducted using radio-tracking, camera trapping and line-transects or by interviewing local communities.

SVW is also currently beginning a study with the University of Washington to DNA map pangolin populations by collecting their scat.

This data will be used to try to curb the pangolin trade, and will also generate a better understanding of the pangolin populations in Viet Nam.

Moving forward

The grant CEPF provided to SVW was primarily to increase their institutional capacity. Offices were upgraded from the previous two tiny rooms, enabling SVW to host meetings and training workshops and hire a financial manager to increase financial efficiency as the organisation grows. The grant is also helping SVW staff travel to meetings with donors, government and other organisations. In 2016, for example, the director was able to attend the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawai'i , and successfully lobbied for pangolins to be moved to CITES Appendix I.

"We want to continue expanding our organisation. We aim to continue to research population trends and behaviour of small carnivores and pangolins, increase training programmes for law enforcement officers, expand our quarantine area, hire a new vet and complete our new education programme." – Thai Van Nguyen, Director, SVW
"We are working on forming a rapid response team to react as quickly as possible to pangolin confiscation. We are also continuing our work with rangers and local communities to secure a stronghold for wildlife in Viet Nam and to increase the survival rate of released animals. Together with multi-stakeholders, we are developing the national pangolin conservation action plan in Viet Nam." – Thai Van Nguyen, Director, SVW

Founded in 2000, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a global leader in enabling civil society to participate in and benefit from conserving some of the world's most critical ecosystems by providing grants for organisations to help protect biodiversity hotspots, Earth’s most biologically rich yet threatened areas. CEPF is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International (IUCN Member), the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan (IUCN State Member), the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank.

IUCN is leading the second phase of CEPF's work in the Indo-Burma hotspot, working together with the Myanmar Environment Rehabilitation-conservation Network (MERN) and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) to form the CEPF Regional Implementation Team (RIT).