Police in Vietnam have seized a large number of endangered animals being transported to China for sale in restaurants. Wildlife trafficking is illegal in Vietnam, but the government is having a hard time stopping the lucrative trade.
When police in central Vietnam stopped a bus this week heading north from Ho Chi Minh City, they found bags and cages full of wild animals. The police detained the owner of the bus and confiscated the animals.
Police administrator Tran Dinh Trung says it was the biggest haul of wildlife ever in Quang Nam province.
Trung says the police seized over 344 kilograms of snakes, turtles, and monitor lizards.
Barney Long of the World Wildlife Fund in Quang Nam says most of the animals were healthy and would be taken care of.
He said, "Most of them are fine. The monitor lizards and the turtles all look fine, and the turtles will probably go to Cuc Phuong National Park, where there is a rescue center."
The animals are part of an immense illegal trade that supplies endangered species to restaurants in Vietnam and China, where they are considered delicacies.
Long says the trade is the biggest threat to Southeast Asia's biodiversity.
"It is basically vacuuming up animals all the way down into Indonesia and Malaysia and even further afield than that, and it is all coming up into northern Vietnam and southern China," he said.
Many of Vietnam's animal species are protected by legislation, but the laws are not well enforced.
Diep Thanh Phong of the Quang Nam Forest Protection Department says the animals were seized Monday only because the bus owner lacked proper documentation.
Phong says the law requires documents showing the animals' point of origin.
But forest rangers have no authority to stop vehicles unless they know there is a violator on board, and so must depend on traffic police.
And, the WWF's Long says, fines are often too low to deter traffickers.
"Although the laws are very strong, often they're implemented but also interpreted quite weakly, so the fines are not strong enough," he said. "If they are stopped every few months and given a few-million dong in fines, it is really not a disincentive, because they are making thousands of dollars a month."
The laws are also rarely enforced against restaurants in Vietnam, which openly list protected species on their menus.
The global black market in wildlife is worth billions of dollars a year. Experts say the trade has severely damaged Vietnam's environment, bringing some species close to extinction.