Freeze Flash (The Protectors Book 1)

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Like I'm going to come back proclaiming pangolin the new pork belly? The first stop we made was at a high-end restaurant with a regal-looking lion etched into its window. The entryway was lined with fish tanks, and the hostess stood beside a fan of peacock feathers fashioned into a kind of indoor palm tree. All of the waitresses were dressed alike: sherbet-orange blazers and gold polka-dot dresses.

One showed us a menu. In the "wild animal" section, near the back, was a picture of a live pangolin. Imagine, for a moment, a U. Pangolin could be prepared in about 30 minutes, a waitress said with a smile. You have to order it whole, at a minimum of 5 kilos 11 pounds.

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I considered ordering it right then, although I wondered how I would account for an endangered-animal meal on a CNN expense report. Traditional medicine has a long history in Vietnam and China. Pangolin scales are made of the same material as fingernails but are claimed to help with lactation issues and other ailments. I talked it over with Z, the wildlife investigator who was my tour guide and whose identity I'm withholding because he continues to investigate the wildlife trade in Vietnam undercover.

He suggested that I not place the order — or that he didn't want to be a part of it if I did. I'd be giving a substantial amount of money to a black-market industry, he said. And I'd also be ensuring that one specific live pangolin I thought of Lucky in this moment would end up dead. I figured pangolins, like chicken or whatever, would already be dead in a meat freezer in the kitchen.

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Consequently, I figured I could argue to myself and to you that I hadn't actually killed a pangolin by ordering it. It was already dead. As the waitress explained, with the poise of a "Downton Abbey" cast member, the staff would bring the pangolin out to the table live -- and slit its throat. Think of it as a quality assurance measure, designed to prove to us that we indeed were eating real, endangered pangolin.

Not a substitute. Won't the blood get everywhere? I asked, realizing that's probably not a question a genuine pangolin eater would actually be concerned with. No, she said, giggling.

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Of course it wouldn't. And we'll serve the blood to you with wine if you'd like. Rattled by this -- they slit its throat at your table?! Another waitress, within earshot, approached us with her phone. This is what it looks like, she said, pulling up a photo of a pangolin lying on its back on a plate, stubby little legs sticking up in the air, claws curled under.

I n November, the Vietnamese government issued a decree bumping pangolins up to the highest category of legal protection, banning any use, sale or possession of live or dead pangolin, according to Do Quang Tung, the government's director of CITES, the United Nations treaty that governs trade of endangered species of plants and animals. At another restaurant, the waitress actually told me ordering pangolin is legal. Me: "When I was in the country recently it was fairly easy to find stores selling pangolin scales and restaurants selling pangolin meat. I'm wondering what your comment is on that.

It was my impression -- and it's the impression of some environmental groups -- that this material is sold fairly openly. Tung: "This selling is not allowed in Vietnam. Me: "It's something that I saw there firsthand Tung, backtracking: "Yes, of course there have been some restaurants or some areas selling that, but it's illegal now. I found pangolin meat for sale in three restaurants; pangolin scales for sale in three traditional medicine shops; and a disturbing pangolin product on display at a fourth restaurant in Hanoi.

At the fourth restaurant, we saw four glass jars displayed prominently on the back wall of the dining room. Three of the jars were covered in red velvet, and all were under spotlights. With the permission of the wait staff, but without identifying myself as a journalist, Z and I pulled back the cloth on the covered jars. Floating in rice wine. The pangolin's tongue hung grotesquely out of its mouth.

No way I'm drinking that, I thought. And it would be impossible now, I'm told, since the pangolin wine was removed after Z reported it to the police. C omposite menu of endangered wildlife:. For Hanoi, Vietnam; prices according to Z and other staff at Education for Nature Vietnam, unless otherwise noted; all health benefits are, of course, alleged but unproven and irresponsible:.

T here are plenty of ways to rationalize a pangolin purchase. Here in Vietnam, it's a sign you've made it. The country is still communist -- red flag, yellow star -- but its economy, like China's, has opened up and boomed in recent years.

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Status culture has followed. I saw at least three couples in Hanoi taking their wedding photos -- like their actual, for-real wedding photos, white dresses and the whole bit -- in front of the logo for a Louis-Vuitton store. Who cares whether the animal is rare, right? The point is it's expensive. Like eating other exotic animals, it's a "VIP-only" experience, one pangolin eater told me.

The argument is different for pangolin scales. Dried and curled, they look like seashells or pork rinds. Not exactly appetizing. But a history spanning thousands of years emphasizes the use of pangolin scales to cure lactation issues in women. When I went into these shops, I was also told the scales, when ground up and eaten with rice, can solve blood circulation problems and cure cancer.

It matters less whether this actually works keep in mind pangolin scales literally are made of the same material found in fingernails than that people believe it does. This hunting dog in Sumatra, Indonesia, has been trained on the scent of pangolins, which are difficult to find at night. Pangolin scales are sold in traditional medicine shops like those found in an old quarter of Hanoi.

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On assignment for CNN in Alaska, for example, I ate walrus stew, with hair still on the chunks of blubbery meat; and dried seal meat, which I dipped in "seal oil. I didn't seek out a walrus- and seal-eating experiences. But I was staying in remote indigenous villages, and families were kind enough to offer these dishes to me. I thought it would be unthinkably rude to refuse. These thoughts ran through my mind as Z and I went back to the first restaurant and sat down at a table. There was a dark part of me that wanted to eat a pangolin.

The preparation method didn't actually matter that much to me.

In a way, it's more honest and ethical to watch an animal's throat be slit in front of you than to pretend, as most of us do in America, that worse things don't happen in factory farms, far outside our restaurants and kept, intentionally, far from sight and mind. We're big hypocrites when it comes to animals in America, and I'll include myself in that assessment. I've always been a meat eater, but I have given that up, at least temporarily, following this reporting trip. People here in Hanoi eat dogs, which we'd never dream of doing.


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But Americans eat pigs, and they're just as smart and loving. I thought about Lucky. I understood the consequences of ordering pangolin, both for an animal I'd weirdly come to care about -- and for a criminal enterprise that's linked in with other nasty networks. One pangolin boss in Vietnam is nicknamed "Iron Face," and she's thought to deal in other illicit goods as well.

Some pangolin bosses are known to trade rhino horn, for instance. Now, as few as 35 individuals remain, all of them outside this country. Other wildlife crime networks have been linked to Al-Shabaab, the East African militant group that the United States identifies as a terrorist organization, and to the smuggling of arms and drugs, which even people who aren't animal lovers can agree is bad. I wanted to -- for the thrill of it, mostly, and for the story -- but I couldn't. I t's impossible to say exactly where Lucky and the other trafficked pangolins in Vietnam came from.

But there's reason to suspect Indonesia, the million-person nation made up of thousands of islands that straddle the equator. In August , nearly 7 tons of pangolins from Indonesia were seized at a port in Haiphong, Vietnam. In , almost 14 tons of pangolins, frozen, were seized in Sumatra, the westernmost island, likely bound for Vietnam or China.

The man responsible for that ton bust -- I'll call him Q to protect his identity -- picked me up at the airport in Sumatra. He's a put-together guy who wears button-up shirts, parts his hair in the middle and listens to jazz. He works as an undercover wildlife investigator for an international organization.

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Q has been able to pull off that deception because of personal connections. Someone in Q's network I'm not saying exactly who once was a tiger-trading and slaughtering kingpin. Ask him about it and Q matter-of-factly says that this man is partly responsible for the fact that there are only some tigers left in Sumatra. But Q is making good on that connection. He uses his link to a now-deceased trafficker to get access to criminal wildlife-trading networks.

I asked Q to help me understand the supply side of the pangolin trade. Where do the pangolins come from, and how are they shipped for export? He towed me into that world, which felt at times like I was being pulled into an episode of "CSI" or "Weeds. At breakfast before we set off to meet with one of the pangolin mafiosi, he dropped on the table a jar containing a dead, baby pangolin floating in a yellow liquid.