Weak enforcement allows tiger trade to flourish

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NGOs can provide information if authorities are brave and willing to take action against well-known criminals


An Indochinese tiger, Mi, carries a cub at the Hanoi Zoo. Experts say Vietnam continues to be a regional hub for illegal trade in tiger parts, pushing the creature close to extinction.

Ten days before the world observes International Tiger Day (July 29) the frozen carcasses of three big cats were seized from a house in northern Vietnam.

Police in Quang Ninh Province Tuesday announced the launch of a criminal probe into the case.

The mature tiger carcasses were found in a house in the border town of Mong Cai. Tipped off by local residents, police raided the house of Hoang The Vinh in Ninh Duong Ward.

Vinh told the police a Chinese man had asked him to temporarily store.

The July 19 raid is seen by experts as evidence that illegal trade in the endangered species continues unabated in Vietnam.

In another case, a rare Sumatran tiger died after being caught in a boar trap in Indonesia's Sumatra Island, AFP reported Tuesday.

The 18-month-old tiger died within three hours of being tranquillized by local conservation officials in a failed effort to save it seven days after being trapped, said Greenpeace media campaigner Zamzami, who witnessed the incident.

"Across Asia, tigers are being illegally killed and traded to meet various consumer demands, pushing the species close to extinction," international conservation group  WWF said in a press release expressing concern over the rampant illegal trade in tiger parts.

In Vietnam, tigers are trafficked mainly for parts used in medicinal tonics (tiger bone glue and wine), as well as for their meat, decorative skins, and for curios and souvenirs.

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Nick Cox, WWF's Manager of Protected Areas, Species and Wildlife Trade, said Vietnam remains a major trade hub for tigers from other Southeast Asian countries into China, as well as a consuming country for tiger products itself.

 "As top predators, tigers keep populations of prey species in check, which maintains the balance and health of ecosystems. This, in turn, provides innumerable benefits to other species, including humans, who depend on ecosystems for livelihoods and ecological security such as clean drinking water and forest fruits and nuts," he said.

Pauline Verheij, tiger trade program manager for the wildlife trade monitor network TRAFFIC, said organized crime networks in Vietnam and beyond are facilitating the cross-border smuggling of tiger parts.

She hailed Vietnam's active participation in the development of the Global Tiger Recovery Program and Vietnam's adoption of the Vietnamese National Tiger Recovery Priorities (NTRP) saying it showed the political will to take necessary measures to combat the illegal killing of and trade in tigers.

"However, illegal trade in Vietnam still continues unabated," she told Thanh Nien Weekly, urging Vietnamese agencies to conduct thorough investigations and take strict measures against every individual involved in the trade.

"What we would like to see is for this political will to be translated into the arrest and prosecution of the key people in Vietnam involved in the illegal trade," she said.

Steven Galster, director of the conservation NGO Freeland Foundation and Chief of Party at ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN) Support Program, also urged strict punishment against the actual people behind the tiger trade.

"Unfortunately, some wildlife traffickers are quite rich and influential. In order to go after such powerful people, strong, interagency task forces, like the WENs are necessary. Otherwise, fear of revenge or corruption wins the day," he said.

Instead of giving an example of where this happens, Galster said it is easier to note that hardly any major wildlife trafficker in Southeast Asia has ever gone to jail.

"Vietnamese officials should demonstrate bravery and love of their nation by arresting well known wildlife criminals.  NGOs in Vietnam and abroad are ready to provide information to officials who are willing to take this bold step," he wrote to Thanh Nien Weekly in an email.

Meanwhile, Justin Gosling, Criminal Intelligence Officer for Interpol Environmental Crime Programs, called for an increase in the salaries of government officials to prevent their collusion in illegal tiger trade.

"The trade in tigers is highly lucrative with some estimates reaching tens of thousands of US dollars for a single animal. Bearing in mind the relatively low salaries of government officers engaged in fighting wildlife crime, and the acknowledged high level of corruption which fuels wildlife crime, it is quite possible for a tiger trader to take advantage of this situation," he said.

Gosling and other experts called for the closure of tiger farms as they could worsen the illegal trade and push the endangered species closer to extinction.

Pauline of TRAFFIC said there is ample evidence that the tiger farms in Vietnam and neighboring countries are supplying the illegal tiger trade and fuelling demand for tiger parts.

"If Vietnam is serious about clamping down on the illegal tiger trade, the tiger farms in Vietnam would be closed down," she said.

In May, the Vietnamese government ordered a survey of the tiger population in Vietnam as well as an assessment of tiger farming as part of efforts to protect the endangered species.

The WWF estimates that there are fewer than 30 wild tigers left in Vietnam.

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