Conservationists cringe at Vietnam's alleged rhino horn progress

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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A rhino and calf stand in vet turned game rancher Peter Oberem's wildlife ranch in Limpopo province, South Africa, in this undated photo. Photo credit: Bloomberg A rhino and calf stand in vet turned game rancher Peter Oberem's wildlife ranch in Limpopo province, South Africa, in this undated photo. Photo credit: Bloomberg

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Conservation groups have dismissed a recent poll that suggested Vietnam's rhino horn demand fell by nearly 40 percent in a single year.
The poll, conducted by Nielsen for the Washington-based Humane Society International and the Vietnam Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), said last month that after a one-year awareness campaign, there had been a 38 percent drop in the number of people who buy or use rhino horn in Vietnam's six major cities -- Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Nha Trang, Da Nang, Can Tho, and Hai Phong.
Notably, Hanoi's respondents reported the steepest drop (77 percent), according to the poll, which drew its results from face-to-face interviews with 1,000 respondents conducted between 2013 and 2014.
The survey was part of a three-year campaign that Humane Society International and Vietnam CITES launched in August 2013 to curb what many perceive as Vietnam's voracious demand for rhino horn.
Vietnam will submit a progress report to the CITES Standing Committee by the end of next March on efforts that include awareness campaigns to reduce rhino horn demand and efforts to arrest, prosecute and penalize traffickers.
But a number of conservationists have questioned the validity of the poll by arguing that it is extremely difficult to measure demand for rhino horn, and that there are important questions that must be considered when attempting to do so.
“Our efforts on the ground suggest that there has not been any significant reduction of demand for rhino horn in Vietnam as reported by the Humane Society International,” said Douglas Hendrie, an American technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam, one of the country’s few locally-based conservation groups.
Size matters
In a November 3 National Geographic piece, Scott Roberton, the Vietnam country representative of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, argued that as Vietnamese people become increasingly aware that buying or consuming rhino horn is a crime, fewer will willingly admit to being guilty of it.
“So consumer-focused surveys alone are insufficient to draw reliable conclusions on the demand for rhino horn,” Roberton wrote, referring to the poll commissioned by the Humane Society International and Vietnam CITES.
“It is premature to say whether there has been a genuine behavior change among consumers towards buying rhino horn in Vietnam and even more so to suggest what may have caused it.”
Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife at the Humane Society International, shrugged off such skepticism.
“Respondents have no reason to lie to Nielsen survey personnel. People have nothing to fear by telling the truth [and] the survey is completely random,” Telecky told Thanh Nien News.
She stressed that the 1,000 respondents were randomly selected residents of six cities, and defended that as a significant sample size.
But many conservationists do not buy this argument and point out that the survey drew conclusions about a consumer behavior in Hanoi by speaking to just 200 of the city's residents. Meanwhile, when the World Bank or the General Statistics Office looks at consumption, expenditures or income in Vietnam, they draw on a minimum sample size of 20,000.
"In any scientific survey the methodology and sample size used are incredibly important to ensure the results that are interpreted from the research are as robust and accurate as possible," said Susie Offord, deputy director of the London-based Save the Rhino International. 
"This is even more difficult when activities are illegal or when trying to directly link any one activity to an attitude or behavior as there will be so many other activities also influencing individuals," Offord said.
Hendrie said he could have a “totally different” outcome by interviewing another 1,000 people.
“But of greater concern, what message does this claim of success send to the Vietnamese government? I can see only one likely result: ‘Vietnam no longer has a problem and we have a study to prove it’,” he said.
“Moreover, this questionable claim of success is poorly timed, coming at a time when record numbers of rhinos are being slaughtered in Africa and smuggling and trade continues as normal.”

In this October 31, 2014 hand out picture provided by the South African Police Services a large cache of 41kilos of smuggled rhino horns are seen at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg after they were confiscated from twovietnamese passengers leaving the country on a flight to Hanoi which originated from Mozambique. Photo credit: AFP

Slaughter in South Africa
On November 1, three Vietnamese people were arrested for allegedly smuggling seven kilograms of rhino horn into Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport.
On the same day, two Vietnamese men were also arrested by South African police at Johannesburg airport with a record haul of 18 rhino intact horns, weighing 41 kilograms (90 pounds), during a stopover on a flight from Mozambique to Hanoi. The police confirmed the bust marked “the largest haul of rhino horns seized in one operation in South Africa”.
On October 27, another Vietnamese woman who had flown to Hanoi from Bangkok, was found with nearly six kilograms of rhino horn.
South Africa -- home to more than 20,000 rhinos or about 90 percent of all rhinos in Africa -- lost 1,004 animals to poachers last year.
At least 969 have been poached by November 5 of this year, according statistics compiled by that country’s Department of Environmental Affairs.
Creating plausible deniability
International conservation groups have identified Vietnam and China as the world's two major consumers of rhino horns -- a charge the two countries have bristled at.
South Africa and Vietnam have signed a pact on biodiversity management to curb the rampant illegal trade in rhino horns.
What's more Vietnam has outlawed the commercial use of rhinoceros horn, which is composed largely of the protein keratin, the chief component in human hair and fingernails. The trade has been fueled by a misguided belief in its supposed medicinal properties, including its ability to cure cancer. Many also flaunt the horns as a status symbol.
It is in this context that conservationists fear the latest poll could provide plausible deniability to key elements within the government.
“In Vietnam, government action (or, too often, inaction) is a critically important driver of illegal consumer behavior,” Roberton wrote.
“Despite the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s directive earlier this year asking law enforcement agencies to improve their responses to rhino horn trafficking, there has been no noticeable increase in arrests, prosecutions, or effective punishments directed toward either buyers or dealers.”
The 2.6 percent
Do Quang Tung, director of the Vietnam CITES management authority, argued that the country would not rest on its laurels based on a single survey.
But he also stated that “one important factor to consider is that Vietnam is not the only rhino horn consumer country. China is also a significant demand country but no one has dared to touch on that,” Tung said.
He lambasted several conservation groups here in Vietnam for “making too much noise over the [rhino horn] issue just to raise as much funding as they can from their donors”.
But at the end of the day, both proponents and opponents of the poll say the most important thing to remember is that 2.6 percent of the population in the six surveyed cities were willing to admit they bought and used rhino horn.
Conservationists warn that if these figures are truly a reflection of the Vietnamese population as a whole, it would mean there are still more than 2.3 million rhino horn users in the country, a considerable cause for alarm.
“This is higher than any number others have ever claimed and it remains incredibly concerning,” said Naomi Doak, an expert at the international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
 

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