Da Lat's wildlife kingpin lives to sell another day

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Body parts of several tigers displayed at a police station in Bangkok after they were found by police in a raid on a suburban Bangkok house.

A notorious wildlife trader dodges criminal prosecution, dashing hopes that Vietnam will ever enforce its already porous conservation laws

Conservationists hoping to have their day in court never got it.

The provincial government of Lam Dong, which is home to Da Lat, has issued a decree ordering Tu Loan, the alleged kingpin of the largest wildlife trade network in town, to pay fines totaling roughly VND150,000 million (US$7,200).

Two years ago, wildlife police raided the woman's restaurant, seizing roughly 300 kilograms of illegal wildlife meat and live animals. Newspapers and conservationists heralded the raid as the largest in Lam Dong's history and a federal prosecutor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Tu Loan could face $26,000 in fines or up to seven years in jail, if convicted.

Tran Thanh Binh, director of the Lam Dong Forest Protection Department, oversaw the raid and seemed certain that Tu Loan would face jail time.

"But"¦ the police have decided to drop charges, citing a lack of evidence," Binh told Vietweek on Tuesday (May 22). "We just cannot sway them and obviously, a paltry fine won't deter anyone."

Binh said Tu Loan's escape from prosecution renders further enforcement efforts totally futile"”making conservation efforts nearly impossible. Conservationists concur, adding that the Tu Loan case provides yet another example of how Vietnam's laws have failed to deter wildlife traders"”many of whom are believed to enjoy cozy relationships with local officials.

Representatives from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) allege that Tu Loan belongs to a notorious family of wildlife traffickers who have ties to traders in Africa, Myanmar and America.

"Letting a criminal offender off without punishment is a serious mistake," said Scott Roberton, WCS's Vietnam Country representative. "We want to believe"¦ that this case doesn't represent the whole situation in the way Vietnam is dealing with wildlife crimes.


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"However, that depends on the next actions of the Lam Dong authorities against this wildlife trader."

Still going strong

Binh says he believes that the local police and officials are protecting Tu Loan's restaurant.

WCS-commissioned reports suggest that, in addition to her restaurant, Tu Loan runs a zoo in Da Lat which she uses to launder protected species. WCS representatives say that her family conducts wholesale wildlife exchanges directly out of their home.

"Local informants tell us that wildlife is still being sold at this restaurant," Roberton said.

Vietweek called Tu Loan on Tuesday posing as a client hoping to make a reservation for a group of 15 people at her restaurant. When a Vietweek reporter inquired about the availability of wildlife meat, Tu Loan responded that she had "everything you want."

She offered wild-caught civet, porcupine, wild pig and deer"”most of which are protected under Vietnamese law.

"We even have bear bile at your request," she said.

The proprietor said that she has already paid her fines to the provincial authorities and her restaurant has resumed business as usual. Tu Loan added that she would have to remain more vigilant in the future.

"Who knows? One day there could be another raid," she said. "I have to stash the wildlife elsewhere and only fetch it when needed."

The only product she declined to offer was rhino horn. "I don't have it."

One year ago, an undercover Vietweek reporter visited Tu Loan's restaurant seeking rhino horn.

Tu Loan said she could get one.

"˜In big trouble'

The collapse of Tu Loan's case comes at a particularly critical time for conservation in Vietnam.

Experts and politicians warn that the country is on the verge of an "extinction crisis" brought on by deforestation, widespread poaching and a "largely uncontrolled" illegal wildlife trade.

The nation's nouveau riche have provided an eager market for wildlife products: from rhino horn to tiger bone paste. The products, which once were prized only for their alleged medical properties, have become status symbols. Wealthy businessmen and government officials alike have been known to gift them to each other.

"Vietnam's biodiversity hangs in the balance," said Nguyen Dinh Xuan, a former lawmaker and the director of a national park in the southern province of Tay Ninh. "The situation is far worse than we imagined."

Xuan recalled a 2010 Party dispatch aimed at enhancing awareness about the "sustainable consumption" of wildlife products by state organizations, businesses, and individuals. For the first time, it expressly prohibited state officers from eating or otherwise consuming endangered wildlife products.

"Since then, I haven't heard of a single official being punished [for consuming wildlife]," Xuan said. "Meanwhile, wildlife restaurants are just packed with state officials and rich people."

Xuan said the existing laws lack the teeth to effectively punish wildlife traders. Some, he said, have actually opened loopholes allowing violators to evade punishment.

"Vietnam doesn't need more directives aimed at protecting wildlife," he said. "We just need to walk the talk."

Duong Trung Quoc, a seasoned legislator, said he has urged the Agriculture Minister to step up the protection of Vietnam's rapidly dwindling elephant population.

"But what I have heard from him was just cavalier talk and no action," Quoc said.

Quoc agreed that the culture of wildlife commoditization knows no boundaries - one well-wisher, he recalled, tried to give him a container of tiger bone paste as a gift.

WCS's Roberton has called on Lam Dong authorities to "re-open [the Tu Loan case], carry out further investigations and make an example of her network and expose the protection she appears to have in the government agencies."

But Binh, the forest protection official, said he would think twice before attempting any of these recommendations.

"If we are alone and go ahead on our own, then we'll just end up in big trouble," he said.

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