Rhino horn theft just tip of iceberg

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Last month's theft of a rhino horn from a banker's house opens a can of worms as even licensed trophy hunters cannot gift or sell them, and almost 500 legally imported horns are untraceable in Vietnam


  A security guard watches a white rhino grazing at a private game reserve in North West Province, near Brits, South Africa in April. Given that Vietnamese were second only to Americans in terms of the number of rhino hunts done in South Africa in 2007-09, Vietnam's lax laws have left conservationists worrying that many trophy horns might have made their way onto the black market or into the hands of horn-trafficking syndicates. Photo: Bloomberg

A high-profile theft of a rhino horn last month brought to light the fact that a Ho Chi Minh City hunter and a bank tycoon had breached the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Ngo Thanh Nhan gifted Tram Be, deputy chairman of Sacombank, a rhino horn worth an estimated VND4 billion (US$191,600) five years ago. Late last month it was reported that the four-kilogram horn was stolen from Be's house in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh.

The theft prompted a US conservation group to ask Vietnamese police to investigate whether the horn was legally procured since trade in such wildlife products is restricted in Vietnam.

Be said he had papers proving the legality of the horn, but under CITES rules Nhan, who shot the animal in South Africa, is the sole owner of the horn, a South African government official said.

"The trophy legally belongs to Ngo Thanh Nhan, the person in whose name the CITES export permit was issued," Roopa Singh, a spokeswoman for that country's Department of Environmental Affairs, said in a statement.

"In terms of CITES, the trophy should be regarded as an item for personal use only.

"Any activity involving the trophy that is not directed [or] intended for personal use can be regarded as commercial; and a commercial activity involving the trophy in the country of import is not allowed in terms of the Convention."

That would mean under CITES rules Be was illegally in possession of it.

Be was not available for comment as of press time while Nhan has maintained that he was not aware of such regulations.

Vietnamese law does not explicitly ban the gifting of trophy horns.

"Our regulations are not clear about prohibiting such a practice," Do Quang Tung, the official in charge of the CITES office in Vietnam, told Vietweek.

Given that Vietnamese were only second to US hunters in terms of the number of rhino hunts done in South Africa in 2007-09, the lax laws have left conservationists worrying that other trophy horns might have made their way onto the black market or into the hands of horn-trafficking syndicates.

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According to CITES figures on export and import permits, 657 rhino horns were legally imported from South Africa into Vietnam as hunting trophies between 2003 and 2010. But the figure recorded by Vietnamese authorities is only 170, meaning the remaining ones, whose value for the purpose of import tax was estimated at $2 million, were not declared with relevant authorities.

"This is one of the big things that could be supporting the demand and have led to the increase," Naomi Doak, coordinator of the Southeast Asia-Greater Mekong Program at the international wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC, said.

"The current law does not even require the horn to stay in the same state, so a number of them have been carved into cups or other items," Doak said. "The "˜extra' bits could then easily be sold into the trade."

South Africa and Swaziland are the only two countries in the world to legalize rhino hunting. "Personal" hunting trophies can also be legally exported, but only the hunters in whose name the hunting and export permits are issued can legally possess them.

In terms of the CITES listing, only white rhinos can be commercially hunted with a permit. But poachers from China and Vietnam have found a loophole for obtaining the magnificent animal's horn by participating in legal trophy hunts in South Africa.

At least 400 rhinos were shot in "pseudo-hunts" conducted by Vietnamese middlemen and women, South African online newspaper Mail & Guardian said in a report citing TRAFFIC estimates.

The flow of horns only stopped in early 2012 after South Africa began to refuse permits to Vietnamese hunters, it added.

Since 2003 Vietnamese hunters have paid more than $22 million to hunt rhinos in South Africa, TRAFFIC said. Between mid-2009 and mid-2012 they accounted for 185, or 48 percent, of the 384 foreign nationals who applied for hunting permits in South Africa.

The rhino horn offers a bigger payoff than other exotic wildlife products such as bear bile or tiger bone paste. An AP report in April quoted American officials as saying that powder made by crushing the horn fetches up to $55,000 per kilogram in Asia "” a price that tops the US street value of cocaine or around the same price as gold.

Elusive

Efforts to confirm the location of the legally imported trophy rhino horns have failed in most cases. Vietnamese authorities have told their South African counterparts that only "late in 2012" will they be able to investigate if the trophies exported to Vietnam remain in possession of the original hunters.

South Africa, home to more than 20,000 rhinos, or about 90 percent of all rhinos in Africa, has lost 455 of them to poachers this year, dwarfing the 448 killed in all of last year, the environment ministry said recently.

International conservation groups have identified Vietnam as one of the world's biggest consumers of rhino horns, a move Vietnam has emphatically rejected.

But there is disturbing evidence that among affluent Vietnamese the horn is a status symbol, a means for them to flaunt their wealth. Rich people and government officials have been known to gift rhino horns to each other. Shaved or ground into powder, the horn is immersed in hot water and used to treat fever, arthritis, and high-blood pressure.

In 2006, a Vietnamese diplomat in South Africa was caught carrying rhino horns out of the country, and another was caught buying them right in front of the embassy building in 2008.

South Africa and Vietnam, both signatories to the CITES, had planned to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to curb the rampant illegal trade in rhino horns at an international biodiversity conference two weeks ago in India.

But Singh said they had to shelve the signing as the Vietnamese minister was "not available." The two countries now hope to do so before the end of the year, she added.

But the Vietnamese side has remained vague about the timeframe.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a recent statement that the two countries are in the process of finalizing legal procedures to sign the MoU "at the soonest possible" time, but did not mention a specific date.

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