Illegal animal skins a booming business in Vietnam

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The illegal animal skin trade is robust and thriving in Ho Chi Minh City and across Vietnam, according to a Tuoi Tre investigation.

Nghia, an animal leather dealer from Dong Nai Province near HCMC, said that langour skins regularly sell for VND2 million (US$97).

"All the parts of the animal, be it langour or any other precious species, are used -- including the bone, meat and skin," he told Tuoi Tre reporters posing as customers in late July.

Another dealer named Tien from the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak said that languor hides are used as a popular home decoration. "Languor leather in the house means a lot of luck," he said.

Tien and Nghia said that fewer languors are now being found in the wild, pushing the price of their skins consistently higher.

Whle Nghia and Tien are careful when approached by new customers, another Dak Lak dealer named Kien was found selling toys he said were made from real animal skins on a sidewalk in District 12, HCMC. He said the skins were real languor, deer and squirrel shipped from Dak Lak.

Kien also said he had a piece of tiger leather he wouldn't sell for less than VND100 million.

Thuy from Dak Lak is also selling animal skin products from a house in HCMC.

He showed Tuoi Tre reporters a wildcat hide priced for VND1.5 million. He said he could get customers large quantities of the skin if they placed an order.

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The demand for wildcat leather is "rather stable," Thuy said. "There will be several wildcats and monkeys skinned here tonight."

Hung, a dealer from Tay Ninh Province, which borders both HCMC and Cambodia, said he regularly smuggled tiger skins across the border.

"Customers only need to make an order and the goods will be available in several days or a week," he told the undercover reporters.

"I have live tigers, let alone tiger skins," the dealer said.

According to Hung, both dealers and customers know that the trade in hides is a "sensitive" issue," and thus dealers don't overcharge.

A tiger skin dealer named Tam said that his products were particularly popular in southern Vietnam, especially in HCMC.

He said people in the south use tiger skins to make wallets.

"A tiger hide is sold at an average of VND180 million," Tam said.

Vinh, a woman selling tiger skins in Go Vap District, HCMC,showed reporters a panther skin she claimed was imported from Europe.

The skin had two holes in the neck and head, which Vinh said were from gunshots.

She said she would sell the skin for VND300 million.

She also claimed a friend of her had sold a similar hide for more than VND1 billion.

The Tuoi Tre investigation found at least ten animal skin distributors operating in HCMC.

Nguyen Dinh Cuong, head of the city's Forest Ranger Department, said people trading or transporting wild animal products illegally could be subject to fines of up to VND500 million.

Severe wildlife trafficking cases can be punished with jail time under the Criminal Code, he added.

The ranger emphasized that the illicit trade had already pushed a number of rare species, including tigers, to the edge of extinction.

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