From South Africa to Laos, authorities are cracking down on traders in endangered flesh
Environmental police seize two frozen tigers and one frozen panther from a house in the north-central Nghe An Province's Dien Chau District on June 22. Conservationists have called for more efforts to stop the trade of endangered species.
Experts are lauding the recent seizure of two frozen tigers and a frozen panther in the north-central province of Nghe An. Still, they say more must be done to stop Vietnamese traffickers plundering the world's precious fauna.
In an extensive response sent to Thanh Nien Weekly, Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV), the country's first local nongovernmental organization (NGO) to focus on conservation of nature and the environment, said that a more holistic approach is needed to staunch the loss of wildlife.
Vietnamese authorities must collaborate across borders to take down the international networks responsible for the trade, he said. At home, they must make sure local markets are free of the illicit products.
"We are focused too much on the act and too little on the enterprise," Hendrie said.
Thomas Osborn, coordinator of the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC's Greater Mekong Program, said that the environmental police have demonstrated once again their dedication to halting the illegal trade in protected species such as tigers.
"If we hope to save the country's remaining tigers and other threatened species, it will take ever increasing vigilance from authorities and a strong commitment by the government to support and promote existing wildlife laws."
As few as 30 wild tigers are estimated to survive in Vietnam.
Despite their protection under Vietnamese and international law, tigers and panthers continue to be illegally hunted and traded across Vietnam and Southeast Asia. On the black market, tiger parts are sold as food, souvenirs and the components of medicine. According to a TRAFFIC statement released on July 2, tiger bone wine remains in high demand throughout the region.
On June 22, environmental police entered the farm of 53- year-old Le Xuan Thoan in Dien Chau District in the north-central province of Nghe An. VietNamNet news website cited reports from the local Forest Protection Agency that Thoan's farm housed two rhinoceroses and a host of other wild animals.
Inside his house, they discovered a menagerie of a different kind.
In addition to the trio of frozen feline carcasses, police seized the skeleton of a wild animal believed to be a lion and around five kilograms of wildlife bones.
Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Viet Nhi of the provincial environmental police said this was the biggest case of frozen wildlife ever to rock the region. He said police will continue to investigate the matter.
From April 14 to May 19 in 2010: Seven young bears were seized in three separate cases in Dien Bien, Ha Tinh and Nghe An provinces. All three cases involved smuggling from Laos to Vietnam.
From April 29 to May 28 in 2010: Hai Phong City customs officials busted four smuggling cases. They confiscated around 4.7 tons of elephant tusks in total.
March 2010: Lao Bao Border Guards in the north-central Ha Tinh Province seized the body of a 95-kilogram tiger and a 27- kilogram black panther being transported across the border to be sold in Vietnam.
October 2009: Vietnam Environmental Police seized two frozen tiger carcasses weighing a total of 130kg and arrested five suspects in Hanoi.
(Source: Education for Nature Vietnam)
Several conservationists have said that Thoan is not the first "wildlife farmer" to be caught in the illegal trade.
ENV has taken aim at the tiger farming.
The NGO recently issued a study that found three out of seven tiger farms across Vietnam are involved in illegal tiger smuggling. Some farm owners opt not to report the number of newborn and dead tigers so they may trade them on the black market, it said.
"Tiger farming in Vietnam should be banned. Only licensed zoos and qualified and strategically planned tiger conservation facilities should be permitted to keep tigers," ENV's Douglas Hendrie told Thanh Nien Weekly.
"Most tiger farmers in Vietnam would be better named "˜tiger businessmen' because they are hardly farmers like the public thinks, but rich businessmen, most of which have purchased their tigers illegally, and nearly all of which are suspected or confirmed to be illegally selling tigers out the back door of their farms, while crying to the public that they are only trying to help save tigers by breeding them for conservation," he said.
Though tiger numbers in Vietnam are dwindling, rhinos have been forced to the brink of extinction. This April, the carcass of a Javan rhino was found hornless and bullet-ridden in the forest in the Central Highlands Lam Dong Province.
Biologists are still trying to determine whether the corpse represents the last of its kind in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the thirst for rhino horns prevails.
On March 29, South African authorities seized a Vietnamese national named Xuan Hoang at O.R. Tambo International Airport. Of the seven rhino horns found in Hoang's possession, several matched the DNA of a rhino that had been poached just a few days earlier.
The horns weighed 16 kilograms, and were valued at approximately US$117,000 according to a press release issued by South Africa-based NGO Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).
The South Africans hit the Vietnamese trader hard.
According to the EWT's press release, Hoang pleaded for mercy and tried to convince the court to levy a fine for his crimes. Magistrate Prince Manyathi responded by saying that fines would no longer suffice as a measure of discouraging future such crimes.
On June 30, the magistrate sentenced Hong to ten years in prison for possessing the horns. "A message needs to be sent to Vietnam," he said.
Last week, three Vietnamese citizens applied for bail in South Africa. The trio were arrested on the opening night of World Cup 2010 on June 11 with a total of 25 rhino horns, EWT told Thanh Nien Weekly via email. Their court case is due later in July.
"[Hoang's] sentence will be setting a norm in the courts for future sentencing of similar cases and will hopefully be a deterring factor to the poaching. It is very significant that such a large number of horns get smuggled out of South Africa into Vietnam undetected and it is our aim to see that better detection of such horns becomes the thing of the future," said Faan Coetzee, Executant of EWT's Rhino Security Project.