Hakai Magazine

Malayan Pangolin (Manis javanica) climbing
In the wetlands of Vietnam, once thriving populations of pangolins have been decimated by poachers. Photo by Suzi Eszterhas/Minden Pictures

The Pangolin Poacher

What drives hunters to illegally kill wildlife? Writer Rachel Nuwer meets a poacher in the coastal wetlands of Vietnam to find out.

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by Rachel Nuwer

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The ethics of poaching seem pretty clear—there are none, right? It’s an illicit activity in which wildlife and wild places pay the price for a few to get rich satisfying the desires of people who want what they want when they want it and will do just about anything to get it. In her newly released book Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, Rachel Nuwer explores the forces that drive the demand for animals and their parts, and she delves into the stories of people working to stave off impending extinctions.

To better understand the basis of this complex illegal trade, she also spends time with poachers, including Tám Hổ, who lives in the Vietnamese coastal wetland of U Minh where he searches for pangolins—the most trafficked mammals in the world—and other wildlife. As Nuwer finds, oftentimes when we dig into the histories of people and places at the bottom rung of the trade, the ethical soapbox on which we stand gets a little wobbly.

For many Westerners, Vietnam still conjures images of helicopters, protests, and soldiers in the jungle. But to continue to associate the country exclusively with the Vietnam War (or the American War, depending on whom you ask) is painfully outdated. Visitors today to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), Vietnam’s economic center of 8.4 million residents, will discover rivers of motorbikes, sidewalks clogged with tourists wearing Good Morning Vietnam! T-shirts, shop windows displaying US $5,000 local designer shoes, and haute-tasting menus. Vietnam remains communist on paper, but a market economy is its beating heart.

As is often the case, Vietnam’s developmental gains came at a cost for the environment. Human encroachment has reached even the remotest deltas, forests, mountains, and grasslands, to the point that few if any of Vietnam’s natural places can now be called truly pristine. In addition to habitat loss, poaching is on the rise. As incomes have gone up, more and more people can afford rare, expensive animal products like tiger bone wine, rhino horn, and ivory carvings.

Demand for those illicit goods is satisfied by an immense underworld of players. Illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion-dollar industry, now one of the world’s top contraband markets. As in any global trafficking network, the people involved span all walks of life: the small-time trader who smuggles wildlife from village to town, the corrupt customs agent who signs off on shipments of those animal parts, and the trade boss who considers himself untouchable.

At the very bottom of that criminal hierarchy are the poachers. Expendable, poor, and in ample supply, without them, there would be no illegal wildlife trade.

I came to know one such illegal hunter, Tám Hổ, in 2010, while conducting research in Vietnam for my ecology master’s degree. I met him in U Minh, a boggy, mosquito-infested wilderness in the country’s deep south, a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Thailand. The place has a menacing reputation: it’s still known for the tigers that once prowled its tangled paths and the crocodiles that formerly plied its dark waters.

U Minh, Vietnam

U Minh—the name roughly translates to “a darkness like in hell”—is a peat swamp forest in southern Vietnam that once covered thousands of square kilometers. Much of that former wilderness has since been tamed by deforestation and illegal hunting. Photo by Nhut jangnhut/Alamy Stock Photo

Much of U Minh’s wildness has since been tamed by deforestation and hunting. Twenty years ago, when Tám Hổ moved to this tough patch of waterlogged jungle, animals were everywhere. Gradually, though, the forest’s furred, scaled, and feathered residents became scarcer, with some species disappearing altogether. No longer able to make a living, poachers in these parts are becoming as rare as the creatures they hunt.

I can still remember the butterflies in my stomach the day my translator, Uy, and I first made our way to Tám Hổ’s house. I was eager to finally meet a real, live professional hunter but nervous about blowing the interview. We soon arrived at our destination: an unexceptional U Minh home with roof and walls built of tightly woven palm leaves and melaleuca branches and a dirt floor smooth from years of use. Tám Hổ welcomed us in. Lean and fit at 40, with a mop of wild black hair and a mischievous glint in his sharp eyes, his bombastic nature and natural charisma needed no translation.

He confirmed that he was indeed the famous pangolin hunter—an admission supported by the traps and nets balanced in corners and lining the ceiling of his home. “I’m willing to give you my knowledge and reveal my secrets, because you are a student and I like your research,” he said, gesturing for us to take a seat on his wooden bed—one of the only pieces of furniture in the room. “I believe science is very important.”

Malayan Pangolin (Manis javanica), Vietnam

Photographed in Vietnam, this Malayanan pangolin is one of eight species of pangolins—the world’s most trafficked mammals. Pangolins are sought after for their meat, considered a delicacy in Vietnam and China, and for their scales, which are valued by some traditional medicine practitioners. The animals are often smuggled through ports hidden in shipping containers. Photo by Masahiro Iijima/Minden Pictures

Tám Hổ told me he began hunting out of necessity. From 1961 to 1971, US aircrafts assaulted the Vietnamese landscape with high-explosive munitions and 72 million liters of defoliants, including the infamous Agent Orange. Up to an estimated four million Vietnamese were and continue to be affected by dioxin poisoning. Tám Hổ believes his six-year-old son counted among the victims of the American poisoning.

A quiet boy who often hid behind his mother’s legs, his son was born with “brain illness,” as Tám Hổ vaguely described it. He took up hunting—something he never had interest in, he claimed—to cover his newborn’s hospital bills. The decision paid off. Tám Hổ proved to be a natural, and he more than quadrupled his family’s annual income, from $1,000 per year to sometimes more than $4,000. He emphasized, though, that he doesn’t enjoy the work: after spending all night outdoors, he returns home covered in mosquito bites, leeches, and bloody scratches.

“Many times, when I step out of the forest, I don’t want to go back ever again,” he said. “But, because of my life, I have to go.”

He will catch anything he can get his snares and traps around, he said, including cobras, monitor lizards, pythons, turtles, otters, civets (small carnivores), fishing cats, and more. He’s not a huge fan of monkeys—they creep him out with their humanoid little faces—but he’ll catch them, too. Above all else, though, he prides himself on his skill at trapping pangolins (aka scaly anteaters), one of the most elusive but lucrative creatures in the forest. In his neck of the woods, the average household earns just $1,000 per year, so a pangolin—which can sell for $450 or more—is truly a windfall. As Tám Hổ put it, “They carry a price like gold.”

In 2015, I returned to U Minh with my translator, Uy—this time not as a student but as a journalist. I was there to interview Tám Hổ on the record and experience a hunting trip firsthand.

Several hours and a few wrong turns after meeting Uy at the airport, we pulled up at a palm and wood house. Birdcages hanging along the porch’s edge held pigeons colored like green and pink Easter eggs and watercocks that looked like the love children of a chicken and a crow. A group of men were sitting on benches around a picnic table, laughing.

Among them, I immediately recognized Tám Hổ. Save for a few extra silver hairs, he appeared not a day older than when I met him in 2010. He wore baggy khaki pants under a tattered, stained orange shirt with Safety written on the back. A cigarette—his ever-present accessory—hung loosely from the corner of his mouth. His crew included his dad, who had a spindly Ho Chi Minh–style mustache and goatee; his brother; and a tall, skinny friend with a slightly maniacal smile. Several women, including Lĩnh—Tám Hổ’s slip of a wife—were bustling around in the kitchen, visible from the porch.

caged birds at Tám Hổ's home

Wild-caught birds adorn the porch at Tám Hổ’s house. While Tám Hổ, a professional hunter, sells most of the animals he catches, he keeps certain birds for their beauty or song. Songbirds are popular pets across Southeast Asia and are being hammered by illegal trade as a result. Photo by Rachel Nuwer

Tám Hổ, sitting cross-legged at the table, grinned and waved us over without bothering to rise. I noticed that he was missing his two front right teeth—a new development, I thought, since I last saw him.

I told him I was very happy to be back here, meeting with him.

“You’re lucky because you’re an American and free to travel,” he replied, smoke curling from his cigarette. “If you were a Vietnamese girl, your husband wouldn’t let you travel, especially with so many men around!” His brother, dad, and friend all cracked up.

I let that one slide and moved on to asking about his work. He shook his head. In the past, he explained, when I first met him, he went to the forest every day, but now his rice and aquaculture ponds take up half his time. “There’s more and more people around these days, so the animals are becoming very rare,” he said. He gestured at the lanky guy with the wild smile. “He used to be a hunter, but he stopped about six years ago to work construction, because there’s no more animals.” The guy nodded solemnly in affirmation.

“Pangolins especially—they’re going to be extinct soon,” Tám Hổ said.

When Tám Hổ first started hunting, he caught up to 10 pangolins a year and even ate pangolin himself (“They’re very delicious”). Lately, though, he’s been lucky to capture just one or two per year.

And his son? How was he doing?

Several years ago, Tám Hổ said, the family’s luck changed. A traditional doctor prescribed a medicine made from a local tree, and his son grew stronger. “He’s much better now,” Tám Hổ said, pride in his voice. “He can study normally.”

Dinh Lam Uy at Tám Hổ's home

Dinh Lam Uy, the author’s translator as well as a conservationist and occasional field assistant in Vietnam, takes a break at Tám Hổ’s house in U Minh. Photo by Rachel Nuwer

As he spoke, I caught a glimpse of the boy, now 10 years old, watching television alongside his little sister through the open door leading into the family’s bedroom. Crayon drawings of princesses and dinosaurs hung on the walls, and a grungy orange kitten played at their feet. The boy did indeed look like a healthy, normal kid.

I congratulated Tám Hổ on his son’s recovery but reminded him that, in 2010, he had told me that he had taken up hunting to pay the family’s medical bills. If the boy was fine now, then why was he still hunting?

“Of course, I’m saving to invest in the highest level of education for my kids,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“Will you teach your son to hunt?” I asked.

“No, no!” He shook his head emphatically. “It’s so hard. He should have a better education, a better life. The leeches and thorns, the malaria—it’s very difficult work.”

I was soon to find out just how difficult it was.

The sky was a shade of deep purple-pink and the air was a chorus of cock-a-doodle-doos when we set off the following morning to join Tám Hổ in the forest. Tám Hổ and Lĩnh were already out front, expecting us. A bit inexplicably, considering that our destination was the forest, Lĩnh was wearing a white bicycle helmet and white peep-toe wedges, revealing the chipped remnants of a long-ago pedicure. Tám Hổ was barefoot.

As soon as I saw our mode of transportation, however—a teensy aluminum boat—I realized those cute summer wedges and bare feet might be more appropriate than the massive hiking boots, each the size and weight of a small boulder, that I was wearing. Climbing into the boat, I wobbled to and fro like a drunken jack-in-the-box until, at last, I plopped down on a stool half the width of my butt. Lĩnh took her seat with ease, perching at the bow like a pirate ship’s angelic figurehead. She and Tám Hổ, who was seated in the back, took up a paddle and pushed in unison against the embankment. Our little vessel slipped into the warm black water.

Guns have been illegal in Vietnam since the early 1990s, but hunters like Tám Hổ haven’t let that logistical hiccup get in their way. They’ve responded with a diverse array of snares, mist nets, catapults, pitfall traps, poisons, and more. Each animal has strong and weak points, Tám Hổ explained, and to be a hunter is to understand these characteristics and exploit them with different traps tailored for different species.

Tám Hổ holding a turtle

Tám Hổ holds a turtle he poached in the U Minh swamp. Like most of the animals he captures, the turtle will be sold to a trader who will likely transport it to a restaurant in nearby Cà Mau, or even traffic it on to Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Rachel Nuwer

We took a sharp turn off the main canal, entering a narrow side channel. The dark water surrounding us sat just a few centimeters or so under the rim of our little boat, which seemed to be defying the laws of physics to keep afloat. The vegetation lining the canal’s banks grew thicker, almost forming a tunnel. As we brushed underneath it, ants and the occasional leech rained down on us like confetti, falling onto my arms, into my hair, and down the back of my shirt. Hungry, buzzing mosquitos trailed us. Tám Hổ and Lĩnh appeared utterly indifferent to the insect assault.

“You’re lucky today, because there’s good weather,” Tám Hổ said. “If there was a little rain, there would be a lot more mosquitos. In the rainy season, I become black because of the surrounding mosquitoes. They’re my most hated insect.”

We stopped at what appeared to me to be a random spot on the side of the canal but that Tám Hổ said was clearly an animal trail. He slipped out of the boat, and Uy and I followed. We pushed into the thick of a bamboo forest where, unlike on the canal, no cool breeze stirred the heavy, humid air. Within seconds I began to sweat profusely, clothes sticking to my body and hair plastering my face and neck.

I was just beginning to wonder how much farther we were going when Tám Hổ stopped and pointed down. I saw nothing. He took a stick, poked at something, and—SNAP! In a flash, a previously invisible loop of metal wire coiled tightly around the stick. He’d tuned this trap, he said, to spring only if something heavier than about a kilogram—something worth his time, in other words—tread on it. “A lot of mice come through here, but they won’t trigger it,” he said. We checked a few more invisible-to-me-but-not-to-him snares, all of them empty.

Tám Hổ checks one of his snares

Tám Hổ checks a nearly invisible snare trap. He sets the traps along the routes used by animals, and engineers them to only trigger when an animal of a certain size passes by. Hunting in protected forests like U Minh is illegal in Vietnam. Photo by Rachel Nuwer

Back on the boat, we passed through more canals and acquired more ants, and then disembarked in a part of the forest used for growing bananas. Though he was only walking, Tám Hổ set a sprint-like pace, weaving through leafy obstacles and across the uneven ground like a figure skater. Soon, I lost sight of him altogether; hearing nothing, seeing nothing, the only sign that he existed at all was the ever-present, faint whiff of a cigarette. Uy and I finally caught up with him only because he stopped to wait. “I’ve seen rangers many times in the forest, but I very quickly hide so they can’t discover me,” he said. After seeing him move like that, I did not doubt it. “Usually they travel in big groups and make a lot of noise.”

We checked a few more traps—again, all empty—and began heading back in the direction of the boat. Suddenly, Tám Hổ stopped. “Rái cá! Rái cá!” he shouted with excitement, pointing down. As usual, I saw nothing.

“What’s rái cá?” I asked Uy.

He told me it means “otter.” I looked closer at the brush, excitedly expecting to see an otter but instead seeing what Tám Hổ had identified as the signs of an otter: empty snail shells and a couple of fish bones.

For reasons that escape him, though, he noted that traders no longer want to buy otters. “But I’ll come set traps here next time I’m out,” he said.

“Wait, if traders don’t buy them anymore, why trap them?” I asked.

“Meat,” he replied simply.

Tám Hổ took the lead again, walking with his hands folded behind his back, carrying a rusted machete. Back at the boat, he announced that we were done now: all the traps were checked for the day, and we were heading home. I sighed with relief—not only because I wouldn’t have to witness an animal meeting its doom but also because being out here really was highly unpleasant. Though the excursion had lasted only an hour, I was covered in bites and scratches, and was so drenched in sweat that it looked like I’d fallen into the canal. Tám Hổ wasn’t lying when he said the forest was not a hospitable work environment.

Back at his house, I thanked him and—despite his insistence that he didn’t want my money—paid him 13 dollars for his time. As Uy and I climbed onto the motorbike to leave, Tám Hổ called out to us, “Wait!” He ran around to the back of the house and returned, moments later, with a small plastic bag. Inside was a live baby turtle, the size of a silver dollar. “For you,” he said, presenting that small life to me with two hands.

Uy didn’t comment. But minutes after we had pulled away, he stopped the motorbike. “Give me the turtle,” he said quietly. He eased himself down the canal embankment, reached into the bag and then placed his open palm on the ground. The turtle, sitting in the center of his hand, needed no more encouragement. It bolted for the water and disappeared within seconds.

“Good luck!” Uy called out.

Without another word, he fired up the motorbike and drove us away.

From Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking by Rachel Love Nuwer, published by Da Capo Press. Copyright 2018 © by Rachel Nuwer.