Health fads put rhinos on death row

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With Vietnamese believing rhino horns have magical medicinal properties and willing to pay big money for them, the giant animal is being driven to extinction.

Nguyen Van Lam, a former deputy head of the Government Office, resigned in July 2006 after he was found to have accepted cash as “gifts” from state agencies during an official trip to the south.

The case broke when Lam absent-mindedly left a handbag with 10 envelopes inside containing US$10,300 and VND20 million at the Hanoi airport.

He claimed that only VND2.25 million was meant for him while the rest was from friends and colleagues who wanted him to buy rhino horns for them.

Besides the source of the money, the fact that a senior government official like Lam had intended to buy rhino horns, an illegal act under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to which Vietnam is a signatory, was also incriminating, a lawmaker said at that time.

Four months later South African police accused a Vietnamese embassy official in Pretoria, Nguyen Khanh Toan, of carrying rhino horns out of the country.

South African authorities reported to the Vietnamese government since Toan had diplomatic immunity.

But in November last year the Vietnamese embassy in South Africa was again in the news after First Secretary Vu Moc Anh was filmed buying rhino horns to a South African trafficker in front of the embassy building.

Anh was summoned home by the government but it is not clear what action was taken against her.

Why rhino horns?

Traditional Chinese medicine considers rhino horn as one of the three main restoratives. Shaved or ground into a powder, the horn is dissolved in boiling water and used to treat fevers, rheumatism, and gout. East Asians also consider it a powerful aphrodisiac.

Given the increasing affluence among Vietnamese, the rhino’s horn has become more affordable. It is also a status symbol, a means for people to flaunt their wealth. It is thus not all that unusual for affluent Vietnamese and even government officials to gift each other rhino horns.

Now, a belief that the horn can cure cancer is apparently taking root. There were some newspaper reports that a Vietnamese government official claimed it had cured him of cancer, adding to the already booming demand.

The demand for rhino horns in Vietnam has driven poaching to a 15-year-high and pushed the animals perilously close to extinction, a report by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC said last July.

This has also rendered the country a major destination for the horns, the report said.

A report commissioned by CITES and produced by IUCN Rhino Specialist Group and TRAFFIC confirmed last month that Vietnam has become an end-use market for wildlife products in general and rhino horns in particular.

“Currently, most rhino horns leaving southern Africa are destined for end-use markets in southeast and east Asia, especially Vietnam and China,” the November report said.

It highlighted Vietnam as a country of particular concern â€" noting that Vietnamese nationals operating in South Africa have recently been identified in rhino crime investigations.

In Vietnam, rhino horns (including fake horns) are sold through traditional medicine stores and hospitals, whilst other shops sell special bowls for grinding and mixing the horns, the report said.

The horns were also marketed through at least six virtual trading websites in Vietnam, it said.

The “online” horns are described as authentic, but no locations are given and only mobile phone numbers are provided for contact, it added.

Poaching epicenter

Since 2006 the majority (95 percent) of the poaching in Africa has occurred in Zimbabwe and South Africa, according to new data. “These two nations collectively form the epicenter of an unrelenting poaching crisis in southern Africa,” Tom Milliken of TRAFFIC said.

The clandestine trade in rhino horns between South Africa and certain countries is a matter of serious concern, according to the November report.

It also quoted CITES import data as saying Vietnam only imported 38 rhino horns since 2006 whereas South Africa has said it exported 268 to Vietnam in the same period.

In terms of its CITES listing, only white rhinos can be commercially hunted with a permit but it is illegal for the trophy owner then to sell the horn. But poachers from China and Vietnam have found a loophole for obtaining rhino horn by participating in legal trophy hunts in South Africa.

Investigations in South Africa have revealed disturbing evidence of organized crime, including the frequent involvement of a small number of Vietnamese nationals in rhino hunting, repeatedly on the same game parks.

Other evidence include numerous cases of Vietnamese “trophy hunters” paying above market price for rhino hunts but then having to be instructed in how to shoot and completely foregoing any proper trophy preparation or the issuance of export permits for rhino trophies to Vietnamese nationals previously linked to ongoing rhino crime.

Given this, concerted action at the highest level is needed to stop this rampant rhino poaching, experts said.

“We urge the Vietnamese government to review and honor its obligations under CITES,” said Cathy Dean, director of UK-based NGO Save the Rhino International.

Thomas Osborn, TRAFFIC’s Program Greater Mekong Coordinator, concurred with Dean. He also spelled out specific measures Vietnamese authorities should take to combat the illegal trade.

“The Vietnamese Government [should] openly state that illegal rhino horn and other illegal wildlife trade will not be tolerated,” Osborn told Thanh Nien Weekly. “They can enforce the letter of the law by instituting criminal proceedings against anyone, including officials, healthcare workers and businesses, caught flouting the law.”

Osborn doubted if the eight seizures of rhino horns in Vietnam would be enough of a deterrent.

“Seizing horns and slapping a fine is likely to be of limited effect, especially as the potential profits from rhino horn trade can far outweigh the fines.”

Rhino horns are said to fetch US$25,000â€" 40,000 per kilogram on the black in Vietnam.

Nguyen Manh Hung, Vietnam’s ambassador to South Africa, told Thanh Nien Weekly that his embassy is fully aware of the seriousness of the problem and would be in close touch with the South African government to prevent this illegal trade.

“We have been educating our staff as well as all Vietnamese citizens in South Africa to adhere to the CITES regulations and domestic laws. We will not brook any participation by Vietnamese in the illegal wildlife trade,” he said.

Dean of Save the Rhino International also called for tougher action from the South African government.

“South Africa should be encouraged to review its annual hunting quotes, to ensure that they are set at sustainable levels in these changing times,” Dean told Thanh Nien Weekly.

The South African government should impose tighter control over its trophy-head export licenses so that rhino trophies can only be exported to countries that have policies in place to register and track the ownership of such trophies, and ensure that they will not be used for commercial purposes or resale, Dean said.

Verge of extinction

The report also raises concerns about the low and declining numbers as well as the uncertain status of some of the Sumatran and Javan Rhino populations in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Vietnam has few rhinos left. No one is quite sure how many though people believe there may be only around five individuals, Osborn said.

WWF researchers began a census last month to see how many there are.

“The resurgence of rhino-horn trade in Vietnam and possibly China and other parts of Asia is of paramount concern but remains poorly documented, especially the extent of usage and trade in end-use markets in Asia,” the report said.

“This issue needs to be carefully assessed, including through a better understanding of the policies, legislation, and law-enforcement actions of governments in end-use markets, especially Vietnam, where internet trading of alleged rhino horns is currently taking place.”

PANACEA MYTH

International experts urge Vietnamese authorities to dispel a deep-rooted belief that rhino horns can cure cancer and other diseases.

“The demand has increased because of the perceived medicinal benefits of using rhino horn, including the ‘new’ use of curing cancer. However, there appears to be no traditional medical backing to say that it works for cancer,” Thomas Osborn, TRAFFIC’s Greater Mekong Program Coordinator, says.

Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same substance that is found in human hair and nails and “reporting this supposed cure was highly irresponsible, and may have led to other people wanting to buy rhino horn,” says Cathy Dean, director of UK-based NGO Save the Rhino International.

“But it was not, and never was, a cure for cancer,” says Susan Lieberman, former WWF species program director.

Reported by An Dien

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