Vietnamese earthworm hunters destroying protective forest go unpunished

By Le Hoang   September 18, 2023 | 04:05 pm PT
Local earthworm hunters have devastated a protective forest in north-central Vietnam to supply the black export market to China, and local authorities have brought no recourse.

The mountainous district of Ba Thuoc's Thung Chan protective forest looks more like a war zone has since the Vietnam War carpet bombing of Thanh Hoa province in north-central Vietnam.

Larger and larger groups of what are essentially poachers encroaching on protected land have invaded the forest and are cutting down trees and pulling up plants at a rapid rate. Whole patches of the tree-dense area are now bare.

The poachers destroy the flora in order to plug electrodes into the ground and shock the soil with electricity that forces the earthworms to rise out of the earth for easy capture.

Nhiều vạt rừng bị phát quang để kích giun ở Thung Chấn. Ảnh: Lê Hoàng

Earthworm hunters have cut down trees in Thung Chan protective forest in Thanh Hoa Province. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

One early morning in September, a group of unknown people approached the forest on motorbikes and then trekked to a marked area to start their earthworm hunt, according to reporters.

Normally, hunters choose areas near a source of water with humid soil that attracts earthworms.

"We jumped in anywhere we see spots with lots of earthworms' excrement," said a man only identified as Long who joined the hunt with another man he knew.

When they found a suitable spot, Long and another man took out the sharp rods connected to a battery.

After they placed the iron rods securely into the ground, they connected them to the battery to send currents of electricity into the earth.

The worms then appear writhing up out of the soil to escape electrocution.

Long only picked worms that are as large as a finger and leaves the smaller ones.

He said on average, a hunter can catch around 10 kilos of worms per day and sell them for VND35,000 per kilo.

"It is not really hard to do this job and the pay is quite decent, so we've been doing this for several months now," said another hunter who requested anonymity.

For that reason, earthworm hunting has now lured as many as 30 hunters to the forest every day.

Long phát quang cây để tiện cho việc kích giun đất. Ảnh: Lê Hoàng

Long destroys flora in Thung Chan protective forest to make it easier for catching earthworms, September 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

As hunters need clear space to set up their tools, they cut down plants and small trees, leaving hundreds of dead stumps and fallen trees across the once beautiful landscape.

After catching the worms, they sell them to facilities where the worms are dried and sold to traders who export them to China illegally.

The owner of one such facility in Ba Thuoc District, a woman named Lan, said she used to buy worms from hunters in northern provinces of Phu Tho and Hung Yen.

She and her husband had only moved to Thanh Hoa recently, she said, with the sole purpose of building their worm-processing facility.

Lan said 10-13 kg of fresh earthworms makes one kilo of dried worms. On average, her facility produces 2.5-3 tons of dried earthworms per day, which she sells at VND640,000-860,000 per kilo depending on the size of the worms.

Last month, environmentalists raised concerns about the growing number of people storming the forest for earthworms. They said the phenomenon is attracting an ever-increasing number of northern migrants coming to try their luck electrocuting the worms as part of a new local "worm rush."

Activists have expressed alarm after farm owners in the northern provinces of Hoa Binh, Son La, Tuyen Quang, Bac Giang reported an increase in people illegally encroaching on their land to shock the ground and catch worms. The process can of course injure farms as well.

In a report published in June 2022, South China Morning Post said in dried form, earthworms are known as "dry-soil dragon" and are used in traditional medicine in China. China itself is facing "an extinction-level ecological disaster due to a huge rise in the electrocution of earthworms in the soil," said the report.

In Vietnam, there are currently no rules preventing people from catching worms by electrocution.

Vu Quang Trung, an official at Thanh Hoa Province's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said using electric shocks to catch worms seriously affects the environment and land quality, and causes an ecological imbalance as earthworms are considered "soldiers" in land reclamation.

However, authorities in the agricultural sector do not have enough functionality to stop the situation, he said.

Ha Van Ngoc, deputy chairman of Dien Thuong Commune, which is home to the protective forest, said all local authorities can do is call on people to stop the practice. Local agricultural authorities in the locality do not have the mandate to police or fine the hunters, so even those who get caught go unpunished.

Inside a facility where earthworms are processed and dried in Dien Thuong Commune of Thanh Hoa Province's Ba Thuoc District. Video by VnExpress/Le Hoang

Currently, the government's Decree 91 on administrative violations in the field of land use has identified acts of land destruction as a regulatory wrongdoing, but has no specific guidance on how to handle those who electrify the soil to catch earthworms.

One avenue to combat the problem that has some efficacy is regulation of the processing facilities.

Colonel Truong Xuan Hung, deputy head of the Ba Thuoc District’s Police Department, said the district is currently home to 16 facilities processing earthworms.

But he also confirmed that police have inspected and suspended 13 of them for having no business licenses.

"We’re working on shutting down all of those facilities," he said.

Professor Do Kim Chung, a lecturer at the Vietnam National University of Agriculture, said that transmitting electric current to the ground does not only affect worms but it also damages many other microorganisms needed for a healthy soil environment.

According to scientific studies, each gram of soil has up to six million microorganisms living in it, and the higher the number of microorganisms, the more productive the soil is, he said.

Earthworms, in particular, are known by local farmers as "biological plowshares" because they help loosen the soil and they work as an important link in the metabolism of soil nutrients, creating conditions for the production of beneficial organic substances, which helps plants grow healthily.

"The death of worms and microorganisms will reduce the ability of the soil to regenerate fertility, make the soil poorer, and eventually plants will be affected, and even die," Chung said.

The authorities should strictly ban the activity and should even consider it "a crime to destroy the environment," he proposed.

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