The city’s expanding urban footprint means people and wildlife are increasingly crossing paths, as Chris Mueller discovers. Photo by Richard Harper

Vietnamese and animals have always lived together in a strange coexistence that has left many species of wildlife struggling for survival. As HCM City continues to develop and spread further towards the countryside, residents have started to notice animals that are typically found in rural Vietnam right at their front door.

Thao Dien in HCM City’s District 2 is one area where strange and wild animals are being spotted more frequently.

Urban-Wildlife-Saigon-2Marnie Watson, one Thao Dien resident, says in the nine years she has lived in HCM City, she usually only sees tiny squirrels and birds. But recently when sitting outside at home with friends, she says she saw a two-metre-long animal with a bushy tail and pointy nose walking on the top of the wall surrounding her house. “It was really quite a shock to see something so large and so unusual,” says Watson.

The strange animal she saw was the civet, an omnivorous cat-like animal that is common in the Vietnamese countryside. There are over a dozen species of civet in Vietnam, the most common of which are the palm civet, Owston’s civet and binturong, according to Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), an organisation that focuses on wildlife preservation. The palm civet is the same animal that coffee connoisseurs credit for creating one of the most expensive coffees in the world by eating coffee beans and passing them through its bowels. The resulting beans are called ca phe Chon in Vietnam, kopi luwak in Indonesia or, more simply, weasel coffee.

Though seeing a civet in your backyard is hardly an unusual sight in many parts of Vietnam, what is odd are the recent sightings of cobras and king cobras around Thao Dien. A British expat attempted to save one king cobra by bringing it to Dr Nguyen Van Nghia’s Saigon Pet Clinic in Thao Dien, but locals had badly beaten the snake and it died before it could be cared for.

Nghia, who earned his veterinarian degree at the University of Bristol in England after working with farm animals for 12 years in Vietnam and France, has owned Saigon Pet Clinic for two years. Most vets in Vietnam only attend a 6-month training course that focuses on farm animals, and there is a serious lack of education when it comes to animal welfare, he says.

Nghia says residents have told him about numerous cobra and king cobra sightings and he believes there are at least five in the area. There are four species of cobra native to Vietnam, including the spitting cobra and king cobra, which can grow up to four metres long, according to ENV.

King cobras are not the world’s most venomous snakes, but a single bite is enough to kill a person several times over. Nghia recalls one instance when a boy had been catching crab in the Saigon River near Thao Dien and a cobra bit him. Luckily he was able to get to Cho Ray Hospital in District 5 fast enough to receive the proper anti-venom.

With such a dangerous snake, it’s no wonder some locals have the tendency to kill them on sight, though cobras are generally not aggressive unless provoked, says Nghia. Cobras have also long been used in traditional medicines in Vietnam. Snake wine, which is said to be able to cure numerous ailments and is used as an aphrodisiac, can be readily found throughout the city. Many Vietnamese also believe cobra blood can treat cancer, says Nghia. He says in order for the blood to be most potent, the snake must be captured, its tail cut and blood drained while still alive. The blood is then mixed with coconut milk and drank.

Other than snakes and civet, Thao Dien residents report seeing otter in the Saigon River as well as rare species of turtles that are brought back from the countryside and kept as pets. Owls are also common. Another expat brought the pet clinic an owl that Nghia says was likely beaten by locals because they are believed to be bad luck. After a week of treatment, the bird eventually died.

Snakes aren’t the only animals to fall victim to traditional medicines. About a one-hour drive from HCM City in Cu Chi District is a wildlife rescue station run by Wildlife at Risk. The station cares for everything from endangered gibbons to reptiles to sun and moon bears rescued from bear bile farms.

Since its opening in 2006, most of the animals it has taken in were rescued from the southern wildlife trade, says Le Xuan Lam, manager of the station. Although most of the animals come from outside the city, Lam says they do rescue some in HCM City—like civet, snakes and birds—that are usually found being kept as pets or sold on menus in wildlife restaurants.

As the city spreads and the more rural districts become even more urbanized the natural environment of these animals will degrade even further. Though this is an unavoidable consequence for a city trying to race towards the future, Nghia and Lam say they hope wildlife education will prevent even more species in Vietnam from becoming threatened. As Nghia puts simply, “We live, so animals have the right to live also.”