Improved transport, law loopholes exacerbate Vietnam wildlife smuggling: experts

By Khanh An, Thanh Nien News

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Elephant tusks seized on August 26 by customs officers at Da Nang City's Tien Sa Port from a shipment from Malaysia. Photo: Nguyen Tu Elephant tusks seized on August 26 by customs officers at Da Nang City's Tien Sa Port from a shipment from Malaysia. Photo: Nguyen Tu


Nearly four tons of elephant tusks have been seized at Da Nang’s Tien Sa Port in separate cases busted by customs officers over the past few weeks.
Authorities have also found more than 8,000 kg of pangolin scales and 142 kg of rhino horns smuggled through the central port.
In Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport and Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport, more than 100 kg of ivory and rhino horns have been seized since August alone.
Vietnam has become a major link in the global illegal wildlife trade, and strict action is not taken against violators due to loopholes in the law and poor enforcement, experts said.
Nguyen Ngoc Tuan, deputy director of customs’ anti-smuggling and investigation department, said wildlife smuggling has become sophisticated.
Only about 20 Indochinese tigers and less than 100 Asiatic elephants remain in the wild.
“Wildlife smugglers have become more daring and smuggle by road, sea and air,” he said at a conference on the issue held in Ho Chi Minh City Thursday by customs and USAID.
According to USAID, wildlife protection has been identified as a key area for cooperation between the US and Vietnam, and is included in numerous international agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Laura McKechnie, deputy director of USAID’s office of economic growth and governance, said combating wildlife trafficking is an urgent issue.
“[It’s] not just for saving species that are critical parts of our ecosystem, but also as a tool to combat transnational networks that facilitate the transfer and sale of weapons, drugs, and even people – in addition to endangered wildlife,” she said.
Extinction threat
USAID highlighted wildlife poaching and trafficking as severe threats to the survival of iconic species originating in Vietnam or transiting through the country.
The Vietnamese tiger, elephant and pangolin are under threat of extinction, as are species from beyond Vietnam’s borders like elephants and rhinos in Africa, according to USAID.
It is said that in Vietnam, people catch all movable things in the forest," Nguyen Manh Ha, manager of a program called combating wildlife trafficking run by USAID, said.
Vietnam lost its last Javan rhino last decade and the populations of other iconic Vietnamese species have dramatically declined to the brink of extinction.
Only about 20 Indochinese tigers and less than 100 Asiatic elephants remain in the wild.
The survival of Vietnam’s pangolin would not be viable if poaching and trade continues, USAID warned.
Wildlife trade hub
Experts said Vietnam is increasingly targeted by wildlife smugglers partly due to the country’s economic growth.
Ha said Vietnam’s improved infrastructure, including pan-Asian highways leading to ports in the East Sea, is unexpectedly facilitating wildlife trafficking.
“The country’s improved transport system has created better connections with other countries in the region. The illegal wildlife trade, which brings benefits just behind human and weapon smuggling, has also benefited from this.”
Laura McKechnie (2nd R), deputy director of USAID’s office of economic growth and governance, speaks with other attendees on the sidelines of the conference. Photo: Minh Hung
In Vietnam, almost all wildlife species have been exploited either for local consumption or feeding the transnational trade, he said.
“Some people say in Vietnam people catch all movable things in the forest. It sounds like a joke but is the truth.”
People no longer kill wild animals for food due to poverty like in the past, he said.
“Now wild animals’ meat is sold for speciality food and their products are considered luxurious decoration items by the rich.
“Many rich families in Vietnam display elephant tusks at home. All of them are illegal.”
Law loopholes
While wildlife smuggling is reportedly on the rise in Vietnam, authorities are not cracking down on it due to a lack of regulations and poor coordination between them, experts said.
Ha said many cases of wildlife trafficking have been busted in Vietnam, “However, in only four cases involving rhino horn smuggling and two involving elephant tusks have there been convictions.”
An officer from the central Environment Police Department, who asked not to be named, told Thanh Nien News that the law prohibits only smuggling of animals found locally.
“Thus, it has been difficult to handle smuggling of species not in the list.
“For example, it is easy to handle smuggling of Javan rhino horns or Asian elephant tusks, but difficult [in case of] African rhino horns and elephant tusks.”
Ho Chi Minh City’s Cat Lai Port has tons of seized African elephant tusks for this reason, he said.
Officials from customs, environment police and judicial agencies attend a conference on combating wildlife smuggling in Ho Chi Minh City on September 17-18. Photo: Minh Hung
Ha said the crime of wildlife smuggling is classified as serious, very serious and extremely serious, but there is no guidance on how they are classified.
“There are no regulations for storage of wild animals and products,” he said.
Mai The Bay of the Supreme Procuracy, Vietnam’s highest prosecutor’s office, admitted that similar acts of wildlife smuggling could attract varying penalties under current regulations.
“Smuggling of local wildlife is subject to more severe penalties than smuggling of the same species of foreign origin,”
There are also differences between various agencies in enforcing the law, he admitted further.
Meanwhile, animals and animal products seized also attracts controversy.
Under a 2008 decree, local species listed in Group IIB – including 89 wild animals - seized from the illegal trade can be sold to zoos, circuses, and legal wildlife traders.
Ha said this encourages the consumption of wild animals and products.
"These animals should only be returned to the forest or sent to zoos."

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