Beef up rhino horn regulations or face sanctions, Vietnam told

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Authorities on the supply side in South Africa are also to blame for failure to regulate the "˜powerful' hunting industry, group says

Ovambo trackers, working as security guards, patrol the rhino territory at a private game reserve in North West Province, near Brits, South Africa, in April 2012. Vietnam has been told to double its efforts to crack down on the illegal trade in rhino horn. 

Vietnam has to crank up its efforts to crack down on the illegal trade in rhino horn and failure to do so could see trade sanctions slapped on the country, conservation groups have said.

The 178-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting for a major wildlife conference in Bangkok, called on Vietnam in particular to redouble its efforts, along with Mozambique, which was urged to prioritize legislation to prevent rhino poaching and illegal trade, AFP reported. The conference also appealed for greater global efforts to prosecute traffickers and curb rising demand in Asia, the newswire added.

South Africa, home to more than 20,000 rhinos, or about 90 percent of all rhinos in Africa, lost 668 of them to poachers last year. About 150 have been killed this year.

International conservation groups have identified Vietnam as one of the world's biggest consumers of rhino horns.

Among affluent Vietnamese, the horn is a status symbol, a means for them to flaunt their wealth. Rich people and government officials have been known to gift rhino horns to each other. Shaved or ground into powder, the horn is immersed in hot water and believed to cure a wide range of ailments including cancer, arthritis, impotence, high-blood pressure and many others.

Vietnam was asked to develop a secure registration database to track legal rhino horn trophies, and to draw up strategies to reduce demand, AFP reported. It also quoted a Vietnamese representative at the meeting as saying that the country would "do our best" but also call on fellow CITES members states to provide technical and financial support.

South Africa and Swaziland are the only two countries in the world to legalize rhino hunting. "Personal" hunting trophies can also be legally exported, but only the hunters in whose name the hunting and export permits are issued can legally possess them.

In terms of the CITES listing, only white rhinos can be commercially hunted with a permit. But poachers from China and Vietnam have found a loophole for obtaining the magnificent animal's horn by participating in legal trophy hunts in South Africa.

According to CITES figures on export and import permits, 657 rhino horns were legally imported from South Africa into Vietnam as hunting trophies between 2003 and 2010. But the figure recorded by Vietnamese authorities is only 170, meaning the remaining horns, whose value for the purpose of import tax has been estimated at US$2 million, were not declared. Vietnamese were only second to US hunters in terms of the number of rhino hunts done in South Africa in 2007-09.

If Vietnam and Mozambique do not implement the recommendations within eight months to a year, CITES could impose trade sanctions, instructing the world's wildlife inspectors and customs police to reject importation of the countries' wildlife or goods made from wildlife, the Washington Post reported Wednesday (March 13).

But conservationists in the field said CITES could not just impose sanctions on a country out of the blue.

"There has to be a transparent stepwise process leading up to the situation in which they could be imposed," Richard Thomas, a spokesman for the international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, told Vietweek.

"Thus, countries are normally set clear deadlines by which certain actions have to be completed and failure to do so can then lead to the next step in the process and ultimately sanctions," he said.

"This would occur at the next CITES standing committee - June 2014."

Last December, the Environmental Investigation Agency, a environmental group based in Washington and London, and several other NGOs, also lodged a petition to the US Secretary of the Interior calling for trade sanctions on Vietnam for its failure to tackle the trade in rhino horns.

"Our perspective is that there is no high level political will in the government of Vietnam to either enact a complete and total ban on the domestic trade in rhino horn, nor to take any meaningful action against the rhino horn criminal syndicates driving the illegal killing of rhinos," Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency, told Vietweek.

In response to the call for trade sanctions, Luong Thanh Nghi, spokesman for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement that Vietnam has strictly prohibited the trade in wildlife species that is against Vietnamese laws and international conventions to which the country is a signatory.

"South Africa and Vietnam have sign a memorandum of understanding on biodiversity management" to curb the rampant illegal trade in rhino horns, Nghi said.

Conservation groups have also urged South Africa to stop the trophy hunts to curb the supply side, but opponents of the ban say hunting played a key conservation role. It was only through the profits from regulated trophy hunting that farmers started stocking, breeding and conserving rhinos, they say.

"The commercial hunting industry in South Africa... is very powerful," Thornton said.

"The failure of the South African hunting industry to self regulate their activities and the failure of the South African government to effectively oversee those activities created the opportunity for Vietnamese syndicates to instigate illegal import of rhino horns into Vietnam."

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