Rhino remains on death row

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No dearth of rhino horns in Vietnamese stores despite moves by Vietnam and South Africa to prevent poaching and trade


Black rhinoceros seen at the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park in South Africa. Both South Africa and Vietnam have a stake in addressing illegal trade in rhino horns that is driven by the false belief in its curative properties, conservationists say.

The pharmacist at Ky Ba Linh Store was very helpful and very clear.

To the Thanh Nien Weekly reporter posing as a customer looking for rhino horn to treat his father's cancer, Nhung (last name not given) said: "I can get an Asian horn right away for you just with a phone call. But if you want an African one, you have to wait."

"African horns have run scarce over the past years so I cannot promise you anything."

The price was firm, no room for bargain: VND85 million (US$4,100) for one hundred grams of a rhino horn from Africa, and VND50 million for the same amount of an Asian horn.

Nhung works for the Ky Ba Linh Store, one of the largest, if not the largest traditional Chinese medicine outlet on Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street, the hub for such stores in Ho Chi Minh City.

The African rhinos are confronting a conservation quagmire. Between 2000 and 2007, South Africa, where the international conservation group WWF said 90 percent of all rhinos live, about 12 rhinos were poached each year, according to national park authorities. But it has skyrocketed since. Last year 333 rhinos were killed in South Africa and almost all of them had their horns hacked off. There has been no slackening since. As of mid-September this year, 284 had already been poached.

Some Vietnamese, especially the nouveau riche, are fueling the local demand for rhino horns, believing it can cure life-threatening diseases like cancer. International health experts and organizations have tried to dispel this notion by saying that the rhino horn, which - like fingernails - is composed of agglutinated hair and contains proteins like keratin, has no medicinal value.

But many Asians are not swayed by such arguments and have maintained their faith in traditional Chinese medicine, which holds that rhino horn is an important restorative. Shaved or ground into powder, the horn is immersed in hot water and used to treat fever, arthritis, or high-blood pressure. Among affluent Vietnamese, the horn is also a status symbol, a means for people to flaunt their wealth. Rich people and well-to-do government officials have been known to gift rhino horns to each other.

The demand for rhino horns in China and Vietnam has driven poaching to a 15-year-high and pushed the animals perilously close to extinction, a report by the WWF, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC said in July 2009.

Vietnamese authorities have, however, shrugged off allegations that most of the rhino horn poached in South Africa is destined to Vietnam. Vietnam may be used as one of the transit points to much bigger Asian market[s], they maintain.

International trade in rhino horn was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1993.

Bilateral bugbear

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The growing horn demand in Vietnam and the continued hemorrhage of rhinos in South Africa has elevated the issue to such an extent that government delegations from the two countries have taken turns to visit each other to discuss solutions.

A delegation from Vietnam will visit South Africa towards the end of this month to discuss ways to stem the growth rhino poaching, AFP reported.

"Of concern is that a lot of arrests of poachers in South Africa ... have been linked to criminal syndicates that have links to Vietnam," AFP quoted environment ministry spokesman Albi Modise as saying. The aim of the upcoming meeting is to "arrive at some sort of mechanism" to address rhino poaching, he said.

The forthcoming exchange follows a visit by South African officials with a stake in rhino conservation in Hanoi last October to address the growing illicit trade between the two countries.

Conservationists in the field have been divided on whether the meeting would deliver results. Some believe this will again be all talk and no action, while others see hopeful signs.

"The meeting and the mechanism to be developed will not, in itself, resolve the problem, but it will advance collaborative efforts between source and consumer states, which can only serve to enhance the fight against this illegal trade," said John E Scanlon, the secretary general of CITES.

"Any dialogue will help. The Vietnamese need to learn more about the crisis of rhino conservation in southern Africa, while African conservationists and law enforcement officials need to learn more about the cultural, economic and criminal aspects of rhino horn trade in Asia," said Raoul du Toit, a Zimbabwean environmentalist who has won the prestigious Goldman Prize in recognition of his efforts to conserve critically endangered black-rhino populations.

"˜Mutual effort'

Du Toit, who is also the Africa program coordinator for the International Rhino Foundation, stressed that the current calls for Vietnam to do more to curb illegal trade in rhino horn is not a matter of pointing fingers at the Vietnamese as being the culprits. "Many people in South Africa are also to blame for the poaching crisis, including a number of rhino owners who have illegally sold horns that they have derived from their rhinos," he said.

"What is expected is that both countries will make a mutual effort to tackle the problem that involves their citizens."

Poachers from China and Vietnam have exploited a loophole for obtaining rhino horns by participating in legal trophy hunts in South Africa to re-sell the horns to smuggling rackets. Since 2008, South Africa has imposed various restrictions, including allowing a single individual to conduct a single hunt over a 12 month period of time. 

"But those bent on illegal trade keep finding loopholes or work with criminal elements in the sport hunting industry to evade controls," said Tom Milliken, elephant & rhino program coordinator at the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. 

"There is now growing pressure to push for a total hunting ban," Milliken said.

In August, the Kempton Park Magistrate Court sentenced Chu Duc Manh and Nguyen Phi Hung to 12 and 8 years in jail respectively for illegal possession of rhino horns and fraud. The ruling was the stiffest penalty given for rhino-related crime in South Africa. Last year, before the football World Cup festivities, three Vietnamese rhino horn smugglers were arrested at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg for attempting to transport rhino horn from South Africa to Vietnam.

Most notably, in 2008, Vu Moc Anh, First Secretary of the Vietnamese embassy in South Africa, was filmed buying rhino horns from a known trader in front of the embassy building.  Anh was summoned home by the government but it is not clear what action was taken against her.

After the most recent jail terms were handed down to two Vietnamese last month, Nguyen Trung Kien, counselor of the Vietnamese embassy in South Africa, reiterated that as a member of CITES, Vietnam doesn't brook any illegal possession and trade in endangered species.

 "We have been educating all Vietnamese citizens in South Africa and those who travel to the country to adhere to the CITES regulations and domestic laws. We will not tolerate any participation by Vietnamese in the illegal rhino horn trade," Kien said.

However, back home in Vietnam, websites and traditional medicinal dealers still offer rhino horn publicly and appear to cater to every single need of consumers.

The Moon Light Gold Company offers an unusual machine used to hold and pulverize chunks of rhino horn by rubbing them against dishes with rough interiors. The electronic grinders and ceramic bowls are on sale at a shop on Cong Hoa Street in HCMC's Tan Binh District, fetching up to VND5.3 million.

"If you want to place an order, just give us a call and two hours later, we will have it delivered to your place," said Vu Duc Hiep, the shop manager. "Our people will also guide you to use the machine properly."

In April last year, the corpse of probably Vietnam's last Javan rhino was found at Cat Tien National Park in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong. The animal's horn and upper jaw bone had been removed.

"The death and probable extinction of the rhino in Vietnam could have been a watershed moment for wildlife conservation in Vietnam, a wake up call to the government that previous and current approaches have failed and a catalyst for positive changes to how wildlife and habitats are conserved," said Scott Roberton, Vietnam representative of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

"Sadly, it doesn't seem to have made that impact. The proposal to build two dams in Cat Tien National Park, the last known home of the Rhino in Vietnam illustrates this perfectly," Roberton said.

"Perhaps it is the apparent lack of accountability for wildlife conservation that these lessons weren't learnt no-one looked at the systemic causes of the rhino's extinction in Vietnam that has been in play for the last few decades, instead the focus was on why the last individual died which is in many ways is irrelevant as the species had effectively become extinct the moment there was only one animal anyway."

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