All the hoopla of fresh commitment and strict action notwithstanding, the Year of the Tiger has not had an auspicious start for the animal it is named after.
Robust demand for tiger bone as traditional medicine has boosted poaching and trafficking of the endangered species and some legally-registered tiger breeding farms in Vietnam have been involved in the illegal trade, experts say.
Lt. Colonel Nguyen Xuan Quyen, Hanoi vice chief environmental police, on March 17 confirmed to Thanh Nien Weekly that at least one tiger farm owner in the north was directly involved in supplying tigers for the illegal trade. However, he refused to name the farm because the investigation was ongoing.
"There has been a thriving [illegal] trade in tigers recently, especially toward the year end when people often give tiger bone "˜glue' as a gift to others," he said, adding that some people believe that the glue often has better quality if it is processed during winter.
"¢ March 7, 2010: Border guards in the north-central Quang Tri Province arrested a truck driver and seized a dead tiger, a dead leopard and dried bones of other wild animals.
"¢ October 2009: Hanoi Environment Police seized two frozen tigers, weighing 130 kilograms in total, being carried in a taxi.
"¢ January 2008: Hanoi Environment Police caught two people red-handed smuggling two live tigers. Four frozen tigers were later seized at their house.
"¢ September 2007: Hanoi police seized two frozen tigers and a tiger skin at a house in Thanh Xuan District where they also found the suspects processing tiger bone glue.
Tiger bone glue is considered by many as a form of traditional medicine that strengthens bones, increases vitality, and treats a range of other ailments.
Quyen blamed wealthy citizens for using tiger products for decoration, medicine and chasing evil spirits away.
He also blamed several local authorities for being "inactive" and allowing many individuals and organizations to set up tiger farms while the Penal Codes' Article 190 bans the farming of endangered species.
Quyen's criticism was echoed by Nguyen Thi Van Anh, Wildlife Trade Program Coordinator of Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV). ENV was established in 2000 as Vietnam's first nongovernmental organization focused on conservation of nature and the environment.
"While we celebrate the many successes of the Environmental Police in investigating and seizing tigers in trade, we recognize the need for the government to strengthen monitoring of tiger farms in Vietnam and strongly recommend that farms that are engaged in illegal activities be immediately closed," she said.
"The tiger trade is a regional, not just a national crisis, involving many countries. Our law enforcement agencies need to work with counterparts in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and other countries with clear links in the trade to identify and prosecute the kingpins that control and finance the illegal trade."
Van Anh was speaking at a press briefing in Hanoi on March 15 to release a report on ENV's twelve-month investigation of the tiger trade in Vietnam, entitled "Year of the Tiger a time to take action for tigers."
Van Anh said the investigation revealed links between some legal tiger-breeding farms in Vietnam and illegal trade and provided significant insight into the mechanics of the trade, including the smuggling of tigers across borders and potential criminal networks operating in Vietnam that may be responsible for much of the tiger trade.
According to a recent report by WWF, scientists estimate that there are only about 30 tigers left in the wild in Vietnam.
"Since 2005, there have been 16 documented seizures of tigers in trade involving 29 animals. ENV believes that this is only a small fraction of the number of tigers that are illegally sourced either from farms in Vietnam or smuggled into Vietnam each year to produce tiger bone glue," ENV said in a press release.
ENV's investigation, carried out in cooperation with investigators from several government agencies, reported a total of 104 crimes involving tigers since 2006, of which 16 cases involved seizures of tigers including frozen or unfrozen remains or tiger bones and one involved live tigers.
Three of six registered tiger farms in Vietnam are suspected of being involved in illegal tiger trade activities, it said.
Of 29 tigers seized in trade, most appear to have originated abroad from places such as tiger farms in Laos.