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This month's essay focuses on Save Vietnam's Wildlife, an amazing organisation that is rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing animals back to the forest at Cuc Phuong National Park.
When I arrived at the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program at Cuc Phoung National park it was daylight, so most of the excitement was yet to come. Save Vietnam's Wildlife operate this facility, rescuing a variety of species native to Vietnam and most of these are nocturnal.
Luckily the leopard cats were curious about my arrival, although this soon turned into suspicion when they realised I had no food for them.
I was being shown around by Nguyen Van Thai, the Executive Director of SVW who has devoted the past decade towards the welfare and conservation of his country's wildlife. His dedication and passion is obvious as soon as he sees the animals and starts to talk about the challenges to wildlife in Vietnam and the stories of these rescues.
For these cats, rescued young as little leopard kittens, they are relatively acclimatised to humans which makes them friendly. As with many species, this may also make them unsuitable for release, having never experienced surviving in the wild.
Despite an international status of Vulnerable, Binturongs are another species very commonly seen at rescue centres across Asia, and Vietnam is no exception. Easily caught and sold for skin, food or even kept as pets, the good news is that they can be good candidates for rescue and release back into the forest.
As you can see these binturongs have very natural habitats provided by SVW. Being in the national park it's easy to provide natural materials for the animals, and their welfare is something taken very seriously.
The commitment to welfare is highlighted as we move around the centre and come to the habitats for one of my favourite species: the pangolin. A great deal of effort is put into caring for all these rescued animals, but pangolins are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity. Sometimes rescued pangolins will die very quickly of stress, or refuse to eat, eventually starving.
The CPCP is the world-leader in caring for pangolins, and alongside their knowledge and experience, they have a couple of tricks up their sleeve. Pangolins are very fussy eaters, and while for us that might mean eating around something on our plate, to a pangolin it could mean starvation. SVW have to source the right type of food, specifically insects that will please these difficult diners, and the right kind of food needs to be brought in from around the country during the winter months, when they are in short supply in the cool winters of Northern Vietnam. The first bite is with the eye, and this food even needs to be presented in the right way in order to keep the pangolins' interest. Fake termite mounds were created so that the pangs can perform their natural foraging behaviours and use their long tongues to find their food deep inside the burrows.
Insects are not the easiest of food to manage, keep them alive is one thing, keeping them contained is another. The metal bowl was custom made by the keepers at CPCP, the inner bowl containing the ants and the outside holding a moat of water, to stop the ants escaping. When feeding time came around, the keepers had ant bites all over them.
This is kind of thing is typical of SVW, and as Thai put it, "First we figure out how to look after the animals, then we figure out how to look after ourselves!"
While welfare is on every NGO's mind in Vietnam, Thai expounded on the urgent need for better conservation in the country. As all over Asia, there are the problems of habitat destruction and the wildlife trade that are reaching critical mass. To wit, SVW have nearly complete their new education facility to help visitors and school children learn about these problems and how they can help to stop it. Another of these efforts is their breeding programme.
As night fell, the first sounds of activity came from the civet habitats. Of the many types of civet that SVW care for, the Owsten's civet, is one of the most rare. There are few left in Vietnam, and SVW not only rescue and release them, but have a breeding programme in conjunction with organisations around the world, to ensure they survive for generations to come.
A captive population of over 60 Owsten's civets have been bred to try and ensure this species' survival, but the problem is not just one of numbers. With a scarcity of safe protected forest in Vietnam for them to be released into, there is still a long way to go before they can be successfully introduced to the wild. To demonstrate how critical the situation is, consider that awareness campaigns are usually directed to the public. SVW found that none of these animals have been rescued in the past 12 years, instead released into nearby unprotected forest or even sold by the government at a wildlife auction (this is currently legal in Vietnam and regarded as a glaring loophole that must be plugged). SVW's Owlston's civet awareness campaign therefore was targeted at government departments and forest rangers, to try and help rangers identify them and know who to contact if they are found.
The two civets, Dong Hoi and Mindy, are shy but after a few minutes they come down from the trees to find some of the fruit that has been scattered around for them to find. They move very sleekly across their habitat and don't really pay much attention to me or the camera. Pitch black apart from my head torch, I manage to get a few shots before they find the last of the bananas and slink off back up to the tree tops.
I think back just 24 before, to the streets of Hanoi. As is these beautiful civets didn't have enough to contend with, people have decided that kopi lawak, 'civet coffee', should become the latest delicacy. This coffee, made from beans digested by civets fed little else, kept in tiny cages for the whims of tourists and the well-to-do around Asia.
Previously it was hard to find, but thanks to recent media coverage, 'civet coffee' takes pride of place, clearly labelled in English all around the tourist districts of Hanoi. It is usually palm civets kept in appalling conditions, they are more common in Asia and much cheaper to buy on the black market from poachers, but my heart sinks just the same.
I have been on shoots for pangolins a few times before, and I know the drill. Now comes the fun part: waiting in hot, humid, silent and pitch black night time!
It does however give me a chance to talk to Thai in whispers mixed with both passion and frustration, and it is obvious how much he loves these incredible creatures he has been studying and rescuing for so many years.
For hours they continue to sleep, with just the occasional shuffle from inside their nesting boxes buried underground. After a false alarm from some squeaking (just rats!), I do hear faint but regular tiny little honk from one of the burrows. It turns out pangolins can snore.
Even Lucky, the most friendly pangolin at the CPCP (who is even known to venture out during daylight hours) doesn't come out to say hello.
Now convinced that all 12 of the rescued pangolins at the CPCP would come out and have a party if I went for a toilet break, I was rooted to the spot. Four hours later at around 1am, Thai checks one of the enclosures and finds Nha Ho taking a break from sleeping in his burrow... to sleep in his tree. Before long they are all out and about and two in particular, Ham Rong and Soc Son, are sniffing around my shoes.
Pangolins are the shyest animals I have ever photographed, but these two are quite happy with my presence. I'm much happier than thyey are by this encounter, however, and briefly consider curling into a ball and rolling around with them on the floor.
This June, SVW released 35 seized pangolins back to the forests of Vietnam. This amazing work will also help continue their study of pangolins in the wild, which will ultimately help not only with the successful release of future pangolins, but also in how and where to protect them in the wild.
Then animals like Ham Rong here can go back to being as they should be, neither seen nor heard, in the forest.
Follow Save Vietnam's Wildlife on Facebook, or find out how you can help them by donating or adopting one of their rescued animals. Most of the animals in this essay are named after the place they were rescued from, so visit the links to find out how you can sponsor and give them their lifelong name.
You can also become a patron and help support my work!