Conservationists call for the head of Da Lat zoo owner

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Massive wildlife raid puts international pressure on Vietnamese prosecutors

Park rangers seized 200 kg of illegal wildlife during an August raid on 12 Dalat restaurants

International and local experts continue to call for thorough investigation and strict prosecution of the people involved in the running of a wildlife restaurant that authorities busted last month in the Central Highlands.

"The detection of these offences is an excellent example of law enforcement action in Vietnam," David Higgins, manager of International Criminal Police Organization's (Interpol) Environmental Crime Program was quoted as saying in a press release issued on September 27.

"This initial seizure by the Forest Protection Department should now be supported by effective prosecution and appropriate punishment upon conviction, to serve as a deterrent to other wildlife criminals in Vietnam and across the region."

The international police organization has been joined by a number of global conservationists who have expressed a hope that the bust will result in heavy convictions jail time, asset seizures and further investigations.

Some have called this raid the biggest hit, to date, on Vietnam's infamous wildlife consumption industry. The practice is so widespread that, last month, the Communist Party's Propaganda and Education Commission issued an official dispatch expressly prohibiting state-employees from consuming wildlife products.

Illicit meat eaters and their suppliers tend to get off easy.

Le Minh Thao, program officer at Wildlife Conservation Society's Vietnam Program, said that most wildlife cases result in administrative punishments, like fines.

Many are looking to this case as a chance to see some heads roll. On August 26, the Lam Dong Forest Protection Department seized hundreds of kilograms of wildlife meat during a raid on 12 restaurants in the province's Da Lat Town. About two-thirds of the meat (weighing more than 200 kilograms) was discovered at the Tu Loan Restaurant run by Tran Phuong Ha, who also owns a zoo in Da Lat.

Subsequent raids by the agency were conducted on September 1 at 17 restaurants in Lam Ha, Duc Trong, Di Linh and Bao Loc districts. Park rangers seized around 30kg of wildlife meat and 12 live wild creatures, including one leopard cat.

On September 23, Vu Dinh Cuong, head of Da Lat Forest Protection Agency, said the town police were gathering evidence to press criminal charges against the individuals involved in the case at Tran Phuong Ha's restaurant.

Meanwhile, experts are demanding that an example be set.

A senior prosecutor from the Supreme People's Procuracy, Vietnam's highest prosecutors' office, said that these violations are subject to criminal prosecution under the Penal Code.

"Prosecutors would have a number of options open to them in this case," he said, declining to be named. The guilty party in this case could face fines of up to VND500 million (US$26,654) or as many as seven years in prison. According to the senior official, prosecutors could also attempt to revoke any licence such a person held to operate a restaurant or zoo.

Joe Walston, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Asia Programs said that the illegal trade is driving wildlife into extinction in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia.

"Enforcement of existing laws - coupled with strong penalties - is a key component to any successful efforts to curb illegal trade. We urge authorities in Vietnam to issue strong penalties against the perpetrators."

Le Thanh Binh, director of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment's Biodiversity Conservation Agency, is also looking to send a message in the Da Lat case.

"The provincial authorities should strengthen management and control of illegal exploitation and trade in wildlife," she said. "Violators should be strictly punished, pursuant to the current wildlife protection laws of Vietnam."

Justin Gosling, INTERPOL Environmental Crime Program's Wildlife Crime Officer advised to target the key criminals behind the trade to curb wildlife trade.

"In order to do this, we need to gather intelligence and focus on those relatively few individuals who control, and profit from the trade," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"Seizures must be followed up by comprehensive investigations to identify the individuals in criminal networks. Prosecutions should follow with appropriate penalties upon conviction. Such actions would send a strong deterrent message to other wildlife criminals."

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