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As a zoo vet I feel lucky and privileged to work with the amazing animals at Paignton Zoo and Living Coasts, and to know that my work contributes at least a little to the ex-situ conservation of some of the most endangered species on this planet.

Besides working with the animals in the zoo, I like to get involved in the conservation of animals in-situ, or ‘in the wild’. This is why, for the last few years, I have volunteered on several animal conservation projects in Africa and Asia. When I heard about a project in Vietnam, supported by the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT – the charity that owns Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts and Newquay Zoo), I decided that it was the perfect next destination for a volunteer trip!

WWCT supports projects all over the world; one of these is Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW) in the Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam. SVW works on the conservation of endangered small carnivores, especially the Owston’s civet and pangolins. Both these species’ survival is under serious threat by human activities: Owston’s civets (and other civet species) are farmed for the production of ‘Kopi Luwak’, or civet coffee, which is a popular but very cruel luxury product; and pangolins are the most illegally trafficked animal in the world, poached in their hundreds of thousands every year for their meat and scales. The demand for pangolins is very high in especially China and Vietnam and as a result there are hardly any wild animals left in Vietnam. I had never worked with either of these animals – I hadn’t even seen a live pangolin before – so you can imagine my excitement about getting the chance to work with them!

I spent 10 days in Cuc Phuong working with SVW’s new vet Hai. Hai had only just started working for the project and had not long graduated as a vet, so part of my role there was to teach him some of the ins and outs of being a wildlife and zoo vet. Together we performed health checks on SVW’s resident Owston’s civets and provided veterinary care for the pangolins that were confiscated and rescued from the wildlife trade and were being prepared for release back to the wild. This is the kind of work I do routinely in the zoo and which is usually pretty straightforward, but the sometimes challenging conditions in Vietnam (think of the heat, the power cuts, storms and lack of proper equipment and medicines) required a bit more flexibility and creativity to deliver veterinary care to the highest possible standards. Besides the veterinary work, I gave a few training sessions to the keepers and looked at the diet and husbandry of the animals that are in SVW’s captive programme. It was a very full 10 days and I hit the ground running from the moment I arrived!

During my stay, 20 rescued pangolins finished their quarantine period. After we declared them healthy, freed them of ticks and cleared them for release, they were released into a National Park in the South of Vietnam a few days after my departure. To top things off, a further 21 confiscated pangolins were brought in on my last night in Cuc Phuong. Most of these pangolins were in very poor condition after days without food and water, kept in a tight net wrapped around their curled bodies (pangolins curl into a ball when they feel threatened), and I found myself working until far past midnight to provide emergency care for these poor creatures. I am glad to report now that most of these animals have successfully come through their quarantine period and have been released back to the wild.

It was a great experience to work on the project and I suspect that wasn’t the last time I will be visiting Cuc Phuong. I am proud to have made a contribution, however small, to the amazing work SVW does.

Christa van Wessem - Veterinary Associate at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park

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