Improving captive tiger management in Viet Nam

WWF’s Anh Le discusses tiger protection efforts

Tiger standing in a caged area
Anh Le portrait

Anh is the policy manager for the Saving Threatened Wildlife project at WWF-Viet Nam.

Across much of Southeast Asia, wild tigers are in crisis and declining in number. The last traces of tigers in the wild in Viet Nam were found about 30 years ago. Today, wild tigers are nationally extinct and only exist behind the bars of captive facilities. Threats from snares, habitat loss, declining prey, and illegal tiger trade are all to blame for the loss of wild tigers.

There are nearly 400 captive tigers in Viet Nam¹, which are kept in a mix of facilities. Although captive tiger facilities themselves are often legal, regulations and oversight can be lacking which means that tigers, their parts, and products can end up sold illegally.

Under the USAID Saving Threatened Wildlife project, WWF supports Viet Nam’s efforts to reduce illegal wildlife trafficking by engaging with leaders in the Vietnamese government, private sector, and civil society. WWF-Viet Nam and its governmental and NGO partners have been advocating for and working toward stronger regulation and management of Viet Nam’s captive tiger facilities.

We sat down with Anh Le from WWF-Viet Nam to find out more about this critical work and how it’s helping to protect tigers in Viet Nam and across Asia.

Q: Tell us how long you’ve been with WWF, a bit about your role, and why your work is important to you.

A: My name is Anh, ex-academic turned WWF enthusiast. I’ve been with WWF for just over a year and I’m the policy manager for the Saving Threatened Wildlife project, funded by USAID. In my role, I help develop policy proposals that are aimed at improving the management of captive tiger facilities across Viet Nam.

In my previous life as an academic, my work was primarily theoretical, but my new position allows me to work on solutions that have real-world applications. With the support of our government partners and other NGOs, I’ve been taking the lead on a pilot project to collect tigers’ DNA samples from captive facilities that will contribute to a national database of all captive tigers in the country. Collecting tiger DNA is fairly straightforward, but it's taken hours of meetings and demonstrations of the equipment and darting process to the stakeholders to secure their buy-in, which ultimately made the pilot project possible (it is a pilot project because we are yet to scale this up nationwide). Seeing your efforts come to fruition is probably the most rewarding aspect of the job.

Q: As of 2023, what’s the situation for wild and captive tigers in Viet Nam?

A: All the available scientific evidence that we have suggests tigers went extinct in Viet Nam sometime in the 2000s. Tigers are also nationally extinct in our neighbouring countries Cambodia and Lao PDR. The situation concerning captive tigers is a bit more tricky.

Officially, there are nearly 400 captive tigers in Viet Nam, kept in a mix of facilities that range from state-run zoos and rescue centers to private zoos and holding facilities. In the Vietnamese context, put simply, captive tiger facilities are mostly legal whereas tiger farms are those where tigers are kept and/or bred for illegal trade. I say ‘mostly’ because some of these facilities no longer have a valid certificate but are nonetheless functional for various reasons.

A captive tiger at a facility in Viet Nam.

We also know that many captive tigers are being kept in so-called ‘basement farms’, where they are held literally in people’s basements. Cubs are often smuggled into the country illegally across the Laotian border and are then kept and fattened up in these basements until they reach a desired weight, when they would be slaughtered and supplied to the illegal trade. In 2021, the Forest Protection Department raided one of these ‘basement farms’ in Nghe An province in central Viet Nam and confiscated 17 tigers.

3 gold-accented pendants made with tiger claws and teeth

Tiger claws and a tooth for sale illegally in a shop in Hanoi, Viet Nam.

You also have other ‘facilities of concern' where there’s a risk of illegal activity. Although the authorities conduct frequent inspections at these facilities, everything is checked visually. Individual tigers often can’t be distinguished on sight and the authorities rely on the owner’s records to confirm that the number of tigers on the book matches those physically at the facility. This means swapping and laundering of tigers can easily occur.

Basement operations and other tiger farms can perpetuate and stimulate the demand for the illegal trade in tigers, their parts, and products by continuing to feed consumer demand. This further threatens tigers in the wild and they will continue to be illegally killed as long as there is demand driving the trade.

Q: How can we improve the management of captive tiger facilities in Viet Nam?

A: As I mentioned earlier, all inspections and checks of tigers are performed visually, leaving gaps for illicit activities to exploit. Therefore one area of improvement is to address this.

Having a national database of DNA samples of all captive tigers helps the authorities to definitively distinguish between individual tigers, determine whether tigers have been moved between facilities, and figure out if registered tigers have entered illegal markets.

Adding photographs of tigers’ stripe patterns to this database would also improve the management of these facilities. Each tiger’s stripe patterns are unique, like our fingerprints, and would help authorities identify tigers in the facilities but also tigers that are found in the illegal trade.

Implemented together, a DNA and photographic database would ensure that captive facilities are properly managed and law enforcement agents are well-equipped to identify any laundering and illegal trade of tigers from facilities in Viet Nam.

Q: Has the government and WWF had any success collecting DNA samples and photographs of stripe patterns from any captive facilities in Viet Nam?

A: So far we have collected DNA samples from a total of 44 captive tigers at three facilities.

Our last visit was to two facilities in the southern part of the country, just a short drive from Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam's largest city. Our work at the first facility went well, although there was some convincing to get the owner to allow us to dart their white tigers because they mistakenly thought 'white tigers are not the same as orange tigers’.

Anh (third from the left) with his colleagues from WWF and partners inspect a tiger facility in Viet Nam.

Vet retrieves the dart used to extract a small DNA sample from a captive tiger at a facility in Viet Nam. This procedure is minimally invasive for the tiger and the DNA will be entered into a national database to monitor captive tigers.

A small DNA sample taken from a captive tiger is processed.

Anh (center) and his colleagues log and store DNA samples taken from captive tigers.

The second facility, however, was much more difficult. The tigers were severely malnourished and thin to the point that their bones were visible, and they were lethargic, showing great difficulty when moving about their small cages. It was clear they weren’t being well looked after and on advice from Four Paws, an organization that provided expert veterinarian assistance, it was clear that they were in no condition to be darted. Four Paws provided the owner with an easy-to-do care routine to improve the health conditions for the tigers, which included information on medication to treat illnesses, dietary information to improve the nutritional quality of their food, and information on how to clean their enclosures to a higher standard.

The conditions of these facilities and the care regimes for the tigers vary greatly. I’ve been to facilities where the doors to the tigers’ cages were not properly locked, or the fences were missing quite a few bars, but never to one where the tigers’ conditions were that alarming. Again, this demonstrates the need to have a standardized framework that covers various aspects of captive tiger management from health care to population control.

Q: A national framework to improve the management of captive tigers is being developed. How will this improve the situation for captive tigers in Viet Nam?

A: Even though tigers are nationally extinct, Viet Nam still has a huge role to play in the conservation of wild tigers globally. Viet Nam remains a crucial source country, transit hub, and destination for the illegal trade of tigers and their parts and products. By improving the management of captive tigers, we can make sure authorities have the necessary framework and tools to stop captive tigers from leaking into the illegal trade. The measures we’ve been trialing—the DNA sampling and stripe patterns images—have been approved by the scientific community as effective in improving transparency at captive facilities.

A captive tiger at a facility in Viet Nam.

If we look beyond these immediate measures, there’s also a legal document called an Economic - Technical Standard for rescuing and caring for tigers, which is in draft stage. This document will set guidelines that tiger facilities have to follow to care for their tigers, enabling authorities to enforce better standards for health care and rescue tigers from facilities that don’t meet these standards. As a result, WWF hopes management systems in these facilities will also improve and bring stricter controls on the breeding of captive tigers in line with the requirements of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Q: What are WWF’s next steps and what are your hopes for the future of captive and wild tigers in Viet Nam?

A: After consultations with the government, experts in wildlife trade and farming, zoos, sanctuaries, and rescue centers, the draft framework was shared in early November 2023, so it’s officially out of our hands now. They’ll undertake a review process before finally submitting it to the Prime Minister. Let’s hope that our inputs make it through to the final version! We are also getting to work on finalizing the Economic - Technical Standard I mentioned before. I hope this will mean a better future for tigers in captivity in Viet Nam, where they are well cared for and there’s no chance they will end up in the illegal trade.

Looking beyond this, in 15 or 20 years I hope to see tigers being reintroduced to the wild in Viet Nam. Tigers once roamed the length of our country and while much of their historic habitat has been destroyed, there are some sites that can be restored to support a reintroduction. I hope by this point we’ve also made significant progress to reduce consumer demand for tigers, their parts and products in Viet Nam and across Asia so these tigers can roam safe and free in our country again.

[1]Forest Protection Department of the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development