Public confidence in rule of law at stake, global police agency warns
Indochinese tiger cubs play inside their cage at the Hanoi Zoo in June. Interpol on Wednesday (November 2) launched a new campaign to coordinate the global fight against tiger poaching, warning that failure to protect the endangered cats would have dire repercussions
A day after seizing a tigress carcass last month on a Hanoi-bound bus, environmental police in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue were relieved to announce that the animal was actually a different kind of large cat bred to look like a tiger.
The carcass was painted in yellow and white to look like a tiger, but the fur's natural color was black, the police said.
Though the carcass turned out to be fake, the demand for parts of the big cats, which are hunted for their fur, bones and other parts, is very real, and continues to dominate Vietnam's wildlife market.
A recent Tuoi Tre (Youth) investigation found out that the illegal trade in animal skin, including that of tiger, is robust and thriving in Ho Chi Minh City and across Vietnam. A piece of tiger leather could fetch up to VND100 million (US$4,800), it said.
Vietnam is now home to more than 110 tigers - although 80 of these were kept in captivity. Tiger numbers worldwide have plummeted from an estimated 100,000 over the past century to 3,200 in the wild at present, due to poaching and human encroachment. Of the 3,200, only about 1,000 are breeding females. The big cats are expected to be extinct by 2022 if left unprotected, according to wildlife group WWF.
Interpol warned that failure to protect the endangered cats would lead to dire economic and social ramifications as it launched a new campaign to coordinate the global fight against tiger poaching on Wednesday (November 2).
It is imperative that the 13 nations where tigers can still be found, including Vietnam, work together to combat wildlife crime, Interpol said.
"Unscrupulous poachers are threatening the few remaining wild tigers with extinction, and we must all work together to protect this iconic species," said David Higgins, manager of Interpol's environment crime program.
Communities will lose confidence in their governments, governance and rule of law if nations are not able to "protect an iconic species such as the tiger from criminality," Higgins was quoted by AFP as saying.
Interpol's new Project Predator is designed to help coordinate efforts of police, customs and wildlife officials in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia and Thailand.
"Illegal trade and trafficking in tiger parts and products is rampant across international borders, making enforcement of laws against it a challenge," Interpol said in a statement released at its annual general meeting in Hanoi.
Project Predator, which has US, British and World Bank funding, will also enable police, customs, and wildlife officials to share information with conservation agencies in a bid to raise public awareness.
The deputy head of Vietnam's department of environmental crimes, Major General Vu Hong Vuong, told reporters that Vietnamese authorities have busted several cases of tiger trafficking from Thailand, through Laos, Myanmar to Vietnam and then to China.
"We need the cooperation from police of other countries in the protection of wild animals, especially tigers," AFP quoted Vuong as saying.
Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank Group, said in a video-taped address to the Interpol gathering that the traffickers of tiger parts "are profiting from killing and cruelty."
"I urge leaders to give their criminal justice systems the power and resources to protect wildlife, forests, and fisheries from those who are plundering the planet's natural capital and countries' living heritage," Zoellick said.
The endangered Javan rhinoceros found dead in Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park last year was the country's last of its kind, the WWF and the International Rhino Foundation confirmed last week.
Conservationists are concerned that a similar fate awaits other endangered species in Vietnam, particularly tigers and elephants.
In November 2010, Vietnam joined other nations in their commitment to end tiger trade across and within their borders.
But "major destination markets for tiger products are indeed China and Vietnam itself," said Douglas Graham, the environment country sector coordinator for the World Bank in the East Asia and Pacific region. "Vietnam remains an important transit point to China in part because of proximity but also because of lax enforcement of restrictions of illegal trade."
Conservationists said they were convinced that most tigers traded in Vietnam these days are from farms and zoos or occasionally from the wild from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.
"This seems to be true. There are probably virtually no tigers that are being poached in the wild in Vietnam," Graham said.
"That may be because tigers are already almost entirely gone or if indeed there is a small number remaining, they would be so rare that they would be excessively difficult to hunt."
With 80 of around 110 remaining tigers kept in Vietnamese farms, wildlife advocates say tiger farming is helping to drive wild tigers into extinction.
Graham said although farming of tigers for consumption is already outlawed in Vietnam, there is considerable evidence that farmed tigers are finding their way into the illegal wildlife trade.
"It is difficult to make progress on this issue in Vietnam for many reasons: lack of clarity in the law, differences of opinion even within the government about what is the right thing to do, and"¦ pressure from tiger farm operators."
In March, Huynh Van Hai, the 57-year-old the owner of a private zoo in the southern province of Binh Duong, got three years in jail for selling endangered tigers.
His zoo, Thanh Canh Tourism Park, was supposed to protect the tigers. However, at least five dead tiger corpses had been sold out of the park secretly during March 2003 and December 2005. Fourteen other people, including Hai's son, received sentences ranging from probation to 30 months in prison for their involvement in the trade.
After the conviction, the local conservation group Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV) hailed efforts by Binh Duong provincial authorities to address a case of illegal tiger trading and urged them continue to act tough.
"It is time that Thanh Canh's six remaining tigers be transferred to a government-run facility where they can be managed in accordance with the law," ENV said in a statement last month. "Binh Duong authorities should not look for support from higher levels in enforcing the law, but muster the strength on their own to take action in this case."
"Let's start by taking the tigers away from a convicted felon and showing tiger farmers, traders and the world that we mean business."