MUGGLING ANIMALS TO FREEDOM
We were just seventy miles short of Hanoi when we stumbled upon the last thing I ever expected to find in Vietnam - a national park.
At first glance Cuc Phuong was a disappointment, so overpoached that it had little left to offer than biting ants and exorbitant entrance fees. We were on our way out the door when we stumbled upon the nearby German-funded monkey breeding program and its director, the laconic Tilo Nadler. He was a tall man and stoop-shouldered, with a tidy black beard and matching horn-rimmed spectacles. He had no use for the letter W and spoke in sentences that often drifted into silence before they ended. His assistant Manuela, the only other Westerner at the station, had gone to Germany for a month, and lack of company had made Tilo more amenable to tourists than was his custom.
He bit at my desire to see some animals within the park. "You vant endangered animals? Go look for zem in ze illegal markets in Haiphong and Saigon." he told me, then quickly relented and offered to show me the endangered species he had collected at his station. We lingered by the gibbon cages, watching them swing from branch to branch on vine-like arms, and for the first time Tilo's forbidding face turned soft and gentle, almost fatherly. After two years and countless midnight raids, he had managed to confiscate six young gibbons, and the five that lived represented the last hope for the survival of their species.
The nearby langurs were in even more dire straits. "Zeir digestive systems are made only for a diet of leafs and ozer vegetation, and zey deteriorate quickly when faced wiz bananas or man-foods," Tilo explained. The poachers who collected young langurs for the animal trade had little understanding of their special dietary needs and stuffed them full of cookies and fruit. They sickened within a day or two, and even if Tilo got his hands on them, he rarely managed to pull them through. Tilo shrugged, his bitterness returning. "In five or ten years zey vill be all gone in ze vild. The Vietnamese and Chinese believe too much in monkey stew to cure zeir aches and pains."
We spent several days at the station, and on our last evening we came in for dinner to find Tilo deeply involved in his third bottle of beer. He had just returned from the local marketplace where he had spotted two six-week-old clouded leopard cubs for sale. He hastened back to the park to gather up several rangers for an official raid and confiscation, knowing that the cubs and their owner were disappearing in the opposite direction with equal speed. He returned in force to an empty stall and noncommittal passers-by. "They are halfvay to China by now," he concluded morosely and popped open another beer.
I wondered why he had even bothered to go back for them. Tilo stood a head taller than the average Vietnamese, and sported the only beard for fifty miles. He was hard to miss. If he had seen the cubs then the store proprietor had most certainly seen him. Why, I asked, didn't he just confiscate them on the spot?
"Ve must have official backup. It ees the law."
Useless to argue law with a German. I tried another tact. Why not buy the little furballs?
"Ve must confiscate them. That vay ve teach them not to take ze animals in ze first place."
A laudable ideal, but with a thriving black market already in place, withholding the park's patronage wasn't going to create an industry-wide recession.
"Ez too late now," Tilo said.