In 2000, our then-fledgling organization was just beginning to reach out to conservation programs in other parts of the world. One of these was the well-planned but underfunded Owston’s Palm Civet Breeding and Conservation Programme in Vietnam. Most people have never heard of the Owston’s palm civet; it’s a rare and beautiful small carnivore, larger than a ferret but similar in stature, with a delicate, pointy nose and long tail.
We were very impressed with the organization’s approach to conservation. The employees, with the exception of one consultant, were all Vietnamese locals planning a long-term career in the area. They chose a location near Cuc Phong, a protected national park, to help incoming animals get there quickly and to make releases easier. With small grants, they developed educational materials and provided outreach programs to locals around the perimeter of the national park to help them understand the animals they were seeing, and encourage them to not participate in disruptive activities in the forest or illegal poaching.
Perhaps most importantly, they worked with local authorities to make sure any confiscated civets came to them, and developed a competitive training program for those officers. Forest rangers attended sessions on identifying the most endangered species, evaluating and caring for an injured confiscated animal, and transporting a potentially dangerous wild animal safely and with minimal trauma to the animal. Over time, they began a camera trapping program largely facilitated by these rangers that documented many of the endangered species living in their national park.
The Owsten’s Palm Civet Breeding and Conservation Programme built a presence in the area and established a reputation for themselves as a credible wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center. By 2002, they caught the attention of organizations in the US and Europe.
In 2003, Hoang Xuan Thuy, their program coordinator, made a trip to the US sponsored by the Columbus Zoo. Thuy (pronounced Twee) wanted to see a variety of facilities in the US to learn more about animal husbandry while making presentations about his own organization to raise funds for his cause. To facilitate his travel, a Conservators’ Center volunteer and I offered to drive him between locations.
We visited several large AZA-accredited zoos, including Brookfield (Chicago), Cleveland, Houston, and Nashville, all of whom were very helpful with husbandry information and demonstrations. Thuy was especially interested in learning more about housing and caring for a variety of small carnivores, since his organization was already demonstrating success with the Owston’s palm civets. Several zoos contributed to Thuy’s travel expenses, and some made additional contributions to his organization over time.
Thuy was very pleased with the information he gathered from these large facilities, but also wanted to visit smaller sites more reflective of the budgetary reality he was working with. Sure, a giant rock back wall and waterfall looks lovely, but the finances of smaller organizations generally demand less expensive building materials and more creative enrichment that, while not necessarily the most beautiful, is more than appropriate for the physical and mental health of the animal. Since Thuy was going home to build and care for animals on a tight budget, he wanted to see places that demonstrated high-quality care within those constraints.
We made several stops on our trip to facilities with that were reasonable for his own Center back home. He spent a great deal of time gathering information about small cats and other small carnivores. Many of the most endangered species in their forest are small carnivores or related species, and they are the only rescue center in their region for those kinds of species.
Here at the Conservators’ Center, Thuy spent time learning about our small cats, including servals, caracals, and lynx. Though those particular species do not come from Southeast Asia, the general housing and dietary needs of a wild cat are similar enough that learning about them gave him a good knowledge base.
He was very pleased to spend time with some of our binturongs, a species he knew lived in the national forest near his facility. He wanted to be prepared to care for them should the need arise. Thuy also very much enjoyed meeting our tigers, and he was delighted to find out how much they loved taking advantage of bathing and misting opportunities straight from a garden hose. Though it is unlikely their Center would ever be involved in a live tiger confiscation, making a personal relationship with such a treasured species clearly made an impact on Thuy.
When Thuy returned home, he spent time training the other employees at his Center. They began to accept rescue and rehabilitation animals of additional species they felt they could adequately support. Over time, he got promoted to other positions, but the relationships he founded during his travels blossomed and continue to this day. The facility added a pangolin project initially sponsored by European zoos, and they eventually changed their name to the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program (CPCP) to reflect their expanded mission.
During the 2007 holidays, I received an update from the CPCP. It featured a confiscated, non-releasable binturong that found a home there and included photo highlights from camera traps that rangers had been posting throughout the national park. Among the photos were pictures of healthy pangolins and marbled cats, one of the most elusive and endangered small-cat species in the world.
Here at the Conservators’ Center, we recently hosted Joel Sartore, a National Geographic contributing photographer and Fellow who was taking photos for his Photo Ark project. We were delighted to provide him access to our jungle cats and our small-spotted genet, Little Guy. We talked to Joel about where he might find some of the more rare carnivores he was hoping to photograph. I was excited to find out he was planning to make a stop at the CPCP in Vietnam to take pictures of the more elusive Southeast Asian small carnivores (UPDATE: you can now view Joel’s photos from the CPCP here).
I saw a story on CNN recently about pangolins and was thrilled and surprised to see the CPCP highlighted in an in-depth article about their current status.
Thuy followed up with ways concerned people can help the pangolin.
The impact the story is having is very exciting. CNN’s viewers and readers have already donated enough money to create and air a public service announcement in Vietnam to help stop the use of pangolins in illegal trade.
It is a wonderful thing to see such a worthy cause come so far in just a few short years. I suspect Joel will find his Photo Ark all the richer for his visit to the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program in Vietnam, as well. For more updates on the program, visit their Facebook page.