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South Africa gets tough on Vietnamese rhino "˜hunters' as poaching soars to record levels

A white rhino killed by poachers for horn in Africa. At least 72 rhinos have been lost to illegal hunting in South Africa so far this year with strong suspicions that most were destined for the trade in Vietnam, a source said.

Several Vietnamese nationals are awaiting trial in South Africa for illegal possession and transportation of rhino horns, an official from the Vietnamese Embassy in South Africa has confirmed.

"They have been arrested and charged in South Africa and are undergoing the trial process," Nguyen Trung Kien, Counselor at the Vietnamese Embassy in South Africa, told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.

However, it is not possible to say they are guilty before the trial ends and details including their names and ages would not be released until then, Kien said.

Meanwhile, a source told Thanh Nien Weekly that the trial at Kempton Park Court would involve six Vietnamese, four in custody and two on bail, for illegal possession of 30 rhino horns in total.

Two more Vietnamese are in custody pending investigation for illegal possession of 15 rhino horns, said the South African source who wanted to remain unnamed. Both have records of legal rhino hunts in South Africa during 2009 and 2010, the source said.

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), 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.

White rhino horns weigh an average of five and a half kilos each. The estimated street value in Vietnam of the horns seized in the cases implicating six Vietnamese persons is pegged at US$6.6 million.

All cases were to be heard at the end of March but were adjourned, the source said.

Tom Milliken, regional director for East/Southern Africa at the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said the cases are expected to go to trial in the next few weeks.

TRAFFIC informed Thanh Nien Weekly that the two Vietnamese suspects in the Western Cape case (arrested with 15 rhino horns) have not yet appeared in court, and therefore their identities are not yet in the public arena.

"The date for their court appearance is June 9, at which time their names will be published in the court records and therefore available to the public and press," the organization said.

The South African source said the courts were taking a harder stance than earlier with the latest round of arrests and were no longer accepting plea bargains outside the court.

All offenders would face trial and no deals would be made in exchange for information on syndicates, the source said.

Delays in court trials were mainly due to difficulties with interpreters in South Africa, the source said.

Vietnamese who are arrested with rhino horns usually use the language barrier as a tactic to hamper investigations, but recently it has backfired on them as they are being held for longer periods in custody awaiting trial, rather than paying huge fines outside the court, the source said.

Asked about actions taken by the Vietnamese Embassy in South Africa regarding the Vietnamese about to go on trial, Counselor Kien said, "When Vietnamese citizens are arrested, the embassy always attempts to send officials on consular visits to ensure that they are treated humanely, fairly and in accordance with South African laws."

"When a trial opens, the embassy always sends its officials to ensure that Vietnamese citizens do not face discriminations."

Kien also said that the embassy advises Vietnamese citizens in South Africa to strictly follow the local country's laws. "As a signatory to CITES, Vietnam does not tolerate any illegal wildlife smuggling," he added.

So far this year, at least 72 rhinos have been lost to illegal hunting in South Africa and it is strongly suspected that in most cases, the poaching was done to supply horns for trading in Vietnam as was the case in 2010, the source said.

Milliken of TRAFFIC said, "We believe that the Vietnamese rhino horn market is the largest in the world right now. Vietnamese nationals based in Africa are heavily involved in the illegal trade.

"We also believe that rhino horn is being marketed in Vietnam by unscrupulous people as a cure for cancer, which is a totally false claim, but unfortunately many people are wasting their money and buying it. The government of Vietnam needs to do more to stop the illegal trade in rhino horn."

According to TRAFFIC, between 2000 and 2007, South Africa averaged about 12 rhinos poached each year. In 2008, the figure reached 78, and by 2010 it was an unprecedented 333. Already this year, more than 80 rhinos have been poached.

In October 2010, TRAFFIC said it "facilitated a mission of South African law enforcement officers to Vietnam for high-level discussions on growing rhino crime issues."

Milliken says in the report on the TRAFFIC website, "Collaborative law enforcement action is needed in both source and consumer countries. The fact that rhino horn remains readily available in Hanoi markets means that Vietnamese authorities are not doing their part to stop the trafficking in endangered species products."

In a high-profile South African rhino horn syndicate case involving game farmer Dawie Groenewald, and veterinarians Karel Toet and Manie du Plessis, the trial has reportedly been postponed until September.

In this case, the eleven suspects will face a litany of charges, including assault, fraud, corruption, malicious damage to property, illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, and contravention of the National Environmental Biodiversity Act.

South Africa's Eyewitness News reported that the prosecution was granted additional time to continue the investigations. McIntosh Polela of the Hawks (South Africa's Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations) was quoted as saying that the case is "very complicated".

"This is a very complicated case," he said. "We need to"¦ have a watertight case against Groenewald and his co-accused and that's why we've asked for such a long time"¦ We want to compile a complete indictment."

Last year, a rare Javan rhino was found dead in Lam Dong Province's Nam Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam.

According to the international conservation group WWF, an autopsy conducted by experts from the US and the UK has revealed that the female rhino, whose carcass was found near a muddy riverbank in Cat Tien National Park on April 29, didn't die of old age but as a result of bullet injuries. Its horn and upper jaw bone had been removed.

It is believed that the animal was the last of its kind in Vietnam.

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