Officials' appetite for rare animals hinders conservation effort

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Little headway made on conserving endangered species as officials and the rich love consuming them

  A security guard watches a white rhino grazing at a private game reserve in North West Province, near Brits, South Africa, in April. Rhino poachers in South Africa, home to 93 percent of the world's population of the endangered animals, are increasingly targeting private game owners as the level of rhino killing rises to a record on demand from China and Vietnam, where rhino horn powder is believed to cure cancer. Photo: Bloomberg

Stuffed tigers, bears and rhinos that could have been used as evidence to track down notorious wildlife traffickers have instead ended up in the residences of state officials.

Such cases are not rare in Vietnam, but they rarely make headlines.

Several lawmakers have told Vietweek that government bureaucrats are huge consumers of rare wildlife.

Rich businessmen often use such products - prized for their unproven medicinal properties - to flaunt their wealth and cement good ties with government authorities, one outspoken lawmaker said.

"Nowadays, bribes for officials are disguised in the forms of not only gifts, luxury vacations and cars, but also rhino horns, bear bile, or tiger bone paste," said Le Nhu Tien, vice chairman of the National Assembly's Committee on Culture, Education, Youth, and Children.

Tien said a slew of endangered wildlife products from bears, tigers and African gaurs and snake, have made their way to the homes of "high-ranking" officials. But he declined to reveal their names and positions.

Experts say the appetite for wildlife products nurtured at the top of the system has flowed downward, permeating every corner of Vietnam. The WWF, an international conservation group, in July ranked Vietnam as the worst country for wildlife crime in a report on how well 23 Asian and African countries protect rhinos, tigers, and elephants.

"The consumption of wildlife products among officials serves as a wake-up call for wildlife conservation in Vietnam," Tien said.

Business as usual

A number of studies in the country have found that state officials and wealthy businessmen remain the leading consumers of wildlife, so the news is not new.

But nine years ago, Vietnamese may have seen more reason to hope.

In 2003, Vo Thanh Long, director of the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Industry at the time, got a suspended 36-month sentence for shooting dead two endangered gaurs on a natural reserve in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak.

Citizens and conservationists at the time had high hopes that the punishment would serve as a deterrent against government officials who have a weakness for wildlife products.

But they were wrong.

In November 2006, South African police accused a Vietnamese embassy official in Pretoria, Nguyen Khanh Toan, of carrying rhino horns out of the country.

Two years later, the Vietnamese embassy in South Africa was in hot water again after its First Secretary Vu Moc Anh was filmed buying rhino horns from a South African trafficker in front of the embassy building.

The problem was serious enough for the Party to issue a dispatch in 2010 that for the first time expressly prohibited government bureaucrats from eating or otherwise consuming endangered wildlife products.

But Vietweek spoke to a number of lawmakers, national park directors, and conservationists who all said that they had not heard of a single official being punished for consuming wildlife.

Meanwhile, wildlife restaurants continue to be packed with state officials and rich people.

"The lack of awareness on the part of both the government and the public, coupled with poor law enforcement, has stymied progress on wildlife conservation," said Le Van Cuong, a former lawmaker from the north-central province of Thanh Hoa who retired last year.

International conservation groups have identified Vietnam as one of the world's biggest consumers of rhino horns. A majority the products have been sourced from South Africa, which boasts the world's largest rhino population and is also in the throes of rampant rhino poaching.

Vietnamese authorities have shrugged off such allegations, saying Vietnam is used as a transit point to much larger Asian markets.

But the rhino horn became news again in Vietnam as an investigation into the alleged theft of an expensive horn from the residence of a bank tycoon has been underway since last week.

Tram Be, deputy chairman of Sacombank, one of the country's major banks, has been in the spotlight since September 27 after local media reported that his four-kilogram rhino horn had been allegedly stolen from his house in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh.

The high-profile theft has prompted the New York-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society to ask Vietnamese police to investigate whether the rhino horn was legal as the trade in such wildlife products is heavily restricted in Vietnam.

Be said he had papers proving the legality of the stuffed rhino that the horn had been attached to.

Although authorities said the investigation into the case is still going on, experts said the display of the rhino horn, worth an estimated VND4 billion (US$191,600), in Be's residence yet again corroborated public hearsay that the Vietnamese elite consider the horn a symbol of status.

Tien, the lawmaker, said many members at the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, were "livid" over the case.

"Our country is still poor and people are still struggling to make ends meet," he said.

"Given that, possessing such a luxurious product is an unusual happening and deals a major blow to Vietnam's efforts to protect endangered wildlife."

Writing on the wall?

The WWF and the International Rhino Foundation have said that Vietnam's last Javan rhino was probably killed by poachers in April 2010. Conservation groups have also warned that Vietnam's tigers and elephants will suffer the same fate if drastic measures are not taken.

But much to the chagrin of conservationists, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has issued a decree announcing that it would begin issuing month-long licenses to hunt and breed 160 species - including the barking deer and several categories of snakes - that were not considered endangered.

The ministry said the decision, taking effect on November 9, was part of an effort to bring commercial exploitation of wildlife under government management while also facilitating the export of wildlife by local farms. At the moment, the only wildlife regulations in place protect endangered species.

But foreign and local experts said the legalization of commercial exploitation of non-threatened wildlife species should be handled with extreme caution.

"Anything that allows new consumption will foster markets. This law provides new market opportunity and we think it will be difficult or the Vietnamese authorities to anticipate all the ways clever entrepreneurs might bend the rules," said William Schaedla, Southeast Asia director for the international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

To make matter worse, Schaedla said the move could be seen as an expansion of wildlife trade and certainly this will send a message to the Vietnamese public that it is okay to be consuming wild animals.

"In short, we do not feel there are many species in Vietnam that could bear commercial exploitation," Schaedla said.

According to TRAFFIC, Vietnam is one of the most deforested and densely human populated countries in Southeast Asia. Only 3.4 percent of the country is protected by national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, it said.

Despite all the difficulties, conservation groups in Vietnam have continued their uphill task of fight against killing wildlife in Vietnam.

Late last month, around 20 volunteers from Vietnam went to Ho Chi Minh City's District 4 to advise local restaurant owners against selling wildlife products.

But there appeared to be writing on the wall, said Nguyen Khanh Toan, the team leader.

"The owners there were just uncooperative," Toan said. "They immediately lashed out at us and chased us away."

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