A sobering journey in Vietnam’s emptied forests reinforces the importance of conservation action to save the remaining endemic species of the Annamites
By Milo Putnam on March 15, 2023
The rainforest was silent. Not a single bird song, rhythmic call of a frog, or the crashing racket of monkeys above our heads. As we walked the lush overgrown trails of the nature reserve, we were left with the disappointing serenade of only our heavy breathing and mucky footsteps. This silence was a jarring reminder of just how empty Vietnam’s forests have become. Ecosystems that should be teeming with fantastical oddities like Large-antlered Muntjac, known as ‘barking deer,’ or the echoing whoops of Annamite Crested Argus--species that are now so rare their natural choruses are close to vanishing forever.
Months before my shins were covered with tacky leech socks --essential for shielding away unwanted tagalongs --I had begun preparing for Vietnam and what might be in store. In fact, the planning and preparation for this storytelling trip spanned the course of years, even preceding my time with Team Re:wild. Our group considered every detail to ensure we could successfully collect footage and photographs to absorb inspiring stories from the field. Why? The Annamite mountains of Vietnam and Laos harbor some of the world’s most threatened and least-known mammal species, several of which are on the cusp of disappearing.
Cue the work of Re:wild and local partners to protect these treasured endemic species of the Annamites. Together we are working to ensure that vanishing forever isn’t an option.
Before the trip, I was cautioned to set my expectations low for seeing wildlife. Even individuals who have spent their lives in Vietnam’s forests know better than to count on seeing these mysterious species. I knew the odds were stacked against us and I could sense the looming reminder of the grim state of Vietnam’s wildlife even before I stepped into the forests.
I had heard the phrase ‘empty forests’ before my trip. This term is used to describe an otherwise healthy or ‘intact’ forest that should be teeming with animals but is instead largely lifeless. The culprit? Wire snares that have been set across the forests to snag any ground-dwelling animal, with no regard for what they catch. That means areas that were once flush with animals are, truly, now empty. It is not until you are standing in the midst of a silent forest that you realize just how much you have taken the symphony of nature for granted.
I was shocked to learn how simple it was to set a snare. So simple it likely takes less time to set than singing your favorite song. As our guides showed us how a snare is set, it became obvious why this method appeals to hunters: snares are cheap, effective, and made easily from something as simple as the wire from a bicycle’s brake cables. Other than the wire itself, the rest of the materials are found in the forest - usually just gathered branches and leaves.
Wire snares are the primary form of hunting in the Annamites. The level of snaring in this region was difficult for me to comprehend. There are even snares blanketing the landscape in protected areas. During our patrol with the Hue Saola Nature Reserve rangers, it was mentioned that in some cases just a single day hike can uncover dozens or even hundreds of snares in the forest. That is if you know what to look for.
At the ranger station, a tangled pile of wire from traps served as a haunting reminder of this crisis’ scale and gave me an idea of what we were looking for. But the truth is, my untrained eyes could barely detect a trap even if I was standing on top of the wire loop itself. Hunters have perfected the art of disguise and ensure these death traps remain hidden. Skilled rangers, on the other hand, have an eye for spotting snares even among the layered forest floor.
Rangers are the Annamites’ front line of defense against the snare crisis. But these traps can only be uncovered during labor-intensive foot patrols.
Not surprisingly, this amount of poaching has wiped out a tremendous amount of native wildlife. Nearly all animal species are vulnerable to these traps. From pheasants to elephants, snares do not pick and choose which animals they capture. As long as a neck, leg, paw, or foot makes contact with these hidden traps, they can fall victim. This hunting technique is comparable to ocean drift nets, which have decimated marine populations by dragging fishing nets that catch all sorts of sea life, big and small.
It wasn’t challenging for me to understand just how cruel wire snares can be. During our patrol, my heart sank imagining an animal shocked by the snap of a wire loop tightening around their body. The horrifying reality is if their initial injuries don’t kill them, these poor animals often languish for days helplessly trapped. It is absolutely heart-wrenching imagining them dying from sheer stress and panic, or even from dehydration or starvation.
The rangers we met at the Hue Saola Nature Reserve have made tremendous sacrifices to protect this ecosystem. They will spend weeks on end in the rainforest, only sporadically returning home to see their families. Le Thanh Tuan, the forest guard team leader, shared that as a child he had discovered a deer trapped in a wire snare. His helplessness at that young age struck a nerve and transformed into his determination to help protect Vietnam’s wildlife and dedicate his life work to combating the snaring crisis.
Through their patrols, rangers like Tudn find and destroy snares and intercept poachers. In this unfair game of hide and seek, rangers are far outnumbered. Even as they hustle to dismantle traps, poachers are reconstructing them in other locations. Rangers simply cannot keep up as snares are laid faster than they can be found. This imbalance underlines the need to increase the ranger workforce within protected areas, as outlined in a recent first-ever study of its kind highlighting the urgency for larger and better-supported protected area teams to ensure the health of life on Earth.
Undoubtedly, poaching is an epidemic in Vietnam with wire snares posing the biggest threat to terrestrial species. Conservationists must continue to work at mitigating this illegal hunting. In order to rewild the Annamites, additional rangers would mean more snares found. And the simple reality is each trap that’s removed is a life saved and a species protected.
Upon returning home from Vietnam I am reassured and hopeful for the survival of these species. Re:wild and our partners are working to establish a conservation breeding program. By bringing individual animals into human care we can help to ensure that species with populations that are already too low and fragmented to be viable have a fighting chance - by ultimately reintroducing them back into the wild.
We are bringing the symphony of nature back to the Annamites, ensuring their forests are never silent again.
Milo is Re:wild's communications specialist working with our partners to share their stories in protecting and restoring the wild. With over a decade of natural resource interpretation and environmental education experience he lives to spark connections between people and wildlife. Milo loves to travel with his husband and is passionate about supporting ethical wildlife tourism.