Getting wildlife off the menu

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Vietnamese have a taste for wildlife. Hanoi restaurants serve such delicacies as snakes and monkeys. Now two environmental groups are hoping to change attitudes and discourage Vietnamese diners from indulging in wildlife cuisine. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from Hanoi.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World. Vietnamese diners, like their neighbors in southern China, have a taste not just for dog but for wildlife. Restaurants in Hanoi have catered to these tastes, as Vietnam's economy has boomed and more Vietnamese have money to spend on wildlife delicacies. Many restaurant menus in Hanoi feature such delicacies as civet, snake, and monkey. But two environmental groups have launched a campaign to keep Vietnam's wildlife in the wild, not on the dinner plate. The World's Mary Kay Magistad tells us how the campaign is faring.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Hanoi's old quarter of ancient, tangled streets buzzes in the evening. Friends sit on low stools at sidewalk cafes, smoking and drinking beer, couples stroll, shops stay open. A woman named Que Lam sits in the doorway of her shop, where gold-plated trays and urns and other offerings for Buddhist temples glows golden behind her. She says the fact that she sells accoutrements for temples means she has to live a clean life, like not eating dog. But the idea of eating wildlife intrigues her:

QUE LAM: [speaking Vietnamese] I think wild animal may be very delicious, but I have never tried, so I have no idea about eating them.

MAGISTAD: If a friend were to order a wild animal when you were out at a restaurant with them, would you want to try?

QUE LAM: [speaking Vietnamese] If someone treats, I will try. If I have a chance, I will try. But if it's not delicious, I will not eat it anymore."

JULIANNE BECKER: It is quite common for people in Vietnam and Hanoi to eat wild animals that are sourced from the forest.

MAGISTAD: Julianne Becker is with the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Hanoi.

BECKER: It's a traditional thing that's been going on for a long time, usually by high-class or rich people. With the rise in the economy in Vietnam, there's been a lot more consumption of wild animals from the forest.

MAGISTAD: That's in addition to using wild animal parts for medicine, or decoration. Tom Osborne is acting director for Vietnam of the environmental group Traffic.

TOM OSBORNE: Most environmentalists or conservationists would agree that wildlife trade is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity in this region, along with habitat destruction or conversion. If you look at the change in trade dynamics over the years, we see less and less being sourced in Vietnam, because the populations aren't there anymore."

MAGISTAD: What's there instead, he says, is something called "empty forest syndrome."

OSBORNE: You get this what's called this empty forest syndrome, where you can go into the forest, and you just don't hear anything. You don't hear any birds, you don't hear animals, you don't hear any noise at all. This is in contrast to somewhere like perhaps Central America, where within ten minutes, you can identify hundreds of different species. You get these knock-on effects, because certain species rely on other species for food or pollination or what have you.

MAGISTAD: So, Traffic and the Worldwide Fund for Nature have teamed up to try to persuade Hanoi restaurants not to serve wildlife dishes, but they're kind of backing into it. Instead of approaching the restaurants that actually do serve wildlife dishes, they've put together a list of dozens of restaurants that don't. They've given them logos to display in their windows, and posted a list of them online, so tourists and environmentally conscious restaurant-goers can patronize environmentally friendly restaurants. The Worldwide Fund for Nature's Julianne Becker takes me to one of the restaurants on the list, Hanoi Garden. Manager Nguyen The Quan sits down with us in the open-air courtyard, near a fake waterfall that flows over a stone wall.

NGUYEN THE QUAN: [speaking Vietnamese].

MAGISTAD: Quan says the restaurant gets at least a couple of requests for wildlife dishes each month from Vietnamese diners, but the owner has always refused to serve it. He says he's not sure why the owner joined the campaign, because he doesn't see how it will help business. But if the owner wants to do this, Quan says he'll do as he's told. On the way out, Julianne Becker admits with a chuckle that it appears the campaign needs some tweaking if it's going to gain traction.

BECKER: Well, it made me think that maybe the next round, we need to make sure that the management is a little bit more aware of exactly why we're doing this campaign, and a little bit more educated of the ideas behind it, and maybe see some of the benefits they might gain out of it, because I actually think they will get a benefit out of being linked to tour companies.

MAGISTAD: But in discreet rooms in Hanoi restaurants where tourists seldom go, pangolin dishes are still served up for as much as $50 a pound. The scaly anteater used to be plentiful in Vietnam. Now, it's so scarce it has to be imported from Vietnam's poorer neighbors, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Vietnamese authorities have begun cracking down on illegal trafficking of wildlife, and Vietnamese media have begun covering the issue, but it takes time to change old cultural habits. Meanwhile, environmentalists worry that even more species could become endangered, if efforts to raise consciousness about conservation continue to be outpaced by the taste for something wild, and the means to afford it. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Hanoi.