Conservationists livid as alleged notorious wildlife trader dodges prosecution, fines
Lam Dong Provincial Forest Protection officials seized this pair of stuffed douc langurs during a massive raid in and around the town of Da Lat last week
Minutes after local wildlife inspectors walked out of her restaurant, Tu Loan went right back to business.
"One hundred million [US$5,000] for one hundred grams [of rhino horn]. No bargain," Tu Loan told Thanh Nien Weekly reporter posing as a client.
"I just want to help you," she said. "Let me ask a friend of mine to bring the rhino horn here. I used to trade in it but it has become scarce in the past three years."
The thickset matriarch ran her restaurant in pyjamas, her gray hair tied up in a bun. When Thanh Nien Weekly undercover reporter claimed to have taken an overnight bus to her restaurant, she offered him rice porridge and spoke in a kind and unassuming manner.
In many ways, Tu Loan seemed no different than any Vietnamese houswife selling food out of the front of her home.
But forest protection officials in the Central Highland province of Lam Dong regard her as the head of perhaps the largest wildlife trade network in town.
Tu Loan, who appears to be in her mid-sixties, is allegedly well-connected to local officials.
"She's the most infamous wildlife kingpin, sure enough, in Da Lat," said Tran Thanh Binh, director of the Lam Dong's Forest Protection Department. "Any rhino horn [sold in her restaurant] must have been sourced from her, not anyone else."
Representatives of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) allege that Tu Loan represents a very well-known wildlife trading family with links to trafficking rings in Africa, Myanmar and America.
WCS said it has information that indicates Tu Loan's family conducts wholesale wildlife exchanges directly out of their home. WCS-commissioned studies also suggest that in addition to her restaurant, Tu Loan runs a zoo in Da Lat which she uses to launder protected species.
In August 2010 authorities raided the restaurant and seized hundreds of kilograms of meat of wild animals.
Off the hook
Newspapers and local officials heralded last summer's raid as the largest in Lam Dong's history.
Local forest protection officials seized hundreds of kilograms of wild meat during raids on 12 seperate restaurants in Da Lat. About two-thirds of the meat, totalling roughly 300 kilograms, was taken from the restaurant run by Tu Loan.
Conservationists, at the time, stressed the importance of following up with criminal prosecutions and heavy fines.
Since then, a few small-time restaurants have been slapped with fines.
Tu Loan, however, has continued to conduct business as usual - according to undercover surveillance conducted by WCS.
No charges or fines have been levied against her.
Provincial police and prosecutors, all speaking on condition of anonymity, insist that her case remains "under investigation" and declined to provide further details.
"To date, very little progress has been made on her case, which is disappointing and raises serious questions regarding the competence and integrity of the authorities leading the investigation," said Scott Roberton, WCS's Vietnam Country representative.
Friends in high places
Recent attempts to catch Tu Loan in the act have only raised suspicion that someone in Da Lat is looking out for her.
Last Friday, a team of agents from the Lam Dong forest protection force raided 27 restaurants and a souvenir shop in Da Lat, seizing 88 kilograms of wild meat and at least 100 live animals.
The raid was prompted by surveillance conducted by WCS, which found that 57 out of 68 restaurants in Da Lat had continued to serve illicit wildlife. Many of these restaurants had been hit last August.
Prior to the raid, Thanh, a 26-year-old waitress at Tu Loan's restaurant, offered a Thanh Nien Weekly reporter civet, porcupine and wild pig.
The printed menu seemed to specialize mostly in seafood.
"Our restaurant can cater to any wild meat you want," Thanh said, moments before wildlife agents flooded into the restaurant.
As the agents fanned out into the kitchen, Thanh assured the reporter that they would find nothing.
"A local forest protection official in Da Lat called us a half-hour before the inspectors arrived," Thanh whispered. "He is very close to our restaurant, so we had enough time to stash all the [wildlife] away.
"My boss is the biggest wildlife trader in town," she added.
While the team conducted their nearly hour-long search, Tu Loan stood with her hand on her hips and grumbled in a low voice.
"They're treating me like a drug dealer," she said. "As you can see, I've done nothing wrong."
Thanh and Tu Loan were right; the frustrated agents only managed to seize 38 wild doves.
"˜Who they know'
Before the crackdown, Tran Thanh Binh, director of the provincial Forest Protection Department confiscated cellphones of his 100-man force to prevent them from tipping off any of their targets.
Nevertheless, he did not rule out the possibility that one of his people had found a way to provide advanced warning to Tu Loan.
"The owners of other restaurants also may have alerted Tu Loan when they got busted," Binh added. "The bottom line is Tu Loan and other unscrupulous restaurants in Da Lat have become increasingly vigilant following last August's raids."
Binh was not surprised to hear that Tu Loan had indicated she could produce rhino horn with a single phone call.
The fact that Tu Loan asked for VND100 million for a hundred grams only demonstrated that she was trading in genuine product, he said.
"We have targeted Tu Loan and her network for years and we won't give up on this case so easily," he said. "But in order to get to the bottom of this, we need to bide our time to work out the most feasible solution. I only wish the police would get involved in the fight rather than just stay out of it like they do now."
WCS's Roberton argues that people like Tu Loan present a real litmus test for the future of Vietnam's rule of law.
"If they are allowed to walk free and there is suspicion that it's because of "˜who they know' or "˜who they paid off', it presents a real threat to the stability of society and rule of the government," Roberton said.
"But more importantly... it makes wildlife conservation near impossible."
DEAD RHINO TELLS NO TALE
Last Friday marked the anniversary of the discovery of the corpse of probably Vietnam's last Javan Rhino.
According to the conservation group WWF, an autopsy conducted by experts from the US and the UK revealed that the female rhino, whose carcass was found near a muddy riverbank in Cat Tien National Park in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong, did not die of old age, but as a result of a bullet wound. The animal's horn and upper jaw bone had been removed.
Traditional Chinese medicine holds that rhino horn is an important restorative. Shaved or ground into a powder, the horn is immersed in hot water and used to treat fevers, rheumatism, and gout. Experts have argued that none of these health claims have been proven scientifically.
Representatives from WWF say that the rhino had been shot in the leg probably two or more months before it died.
The organization added that a DNA study into the status of the Javan rhino population has been delayed due to the lengthy process involved in obtaining the permits required in Vietnam and Canada to export samples of the dead animal for analysis.
"On the death anniversary of Vietnam's last rhino, what can the authorities say they did in response? How many rhino horn traders have been arrested during the last 12 months related to the death? How many rhino horns were seized and DNA tested to look for a match to the Cat Tien rhino's?" asked Scott Roberton, Vietnam representative of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
"I've not heard of any."