Saving the Rhino (from Vietnam)

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Vietnam and South Africa agree to tighten cooperation in busting the illegal trade


The remains of Vietnam's probable last rhino that is believed to have been killed by poachers at Nam Cat Tien National Park in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong in April 2010.

South African police arrested two Vietnamese nationals last week and seized 38 kilograms worth of rhinoceros horns. The bust is the latest seizure in an emerging wildlife trade between the two countries.

The two detained in South Africa for possessing rhino horns will remain in custody until their next court appearance, which is slated for December 7.

On November 23, the men boarded a bus from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Near Beaufort West in South Africa's Western Cape Province, the bus stopped at a roadblock, South African newspaper Eyewitness News reported.

"During the subsequent search members found 15 rhino horns between the luggages of the two suspects," China's Xinhua news agency cited South African police spokesman Malcolm Pojie as saying, adding that the men made a brief appearance in the Beaufort West Magistrate's Court on November 24.

Faan Coetzee of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African wildlife conservation organization, described the arrest as "significant and one of the biggest busts in a long time."

"One person was arrested on the spot while the other one fled the scene but was later arrested at a guest house in town," Coetzee told Thanh Nien Weekly via email. "The men appeared in court but were not asked to plead and were instead held in custody for further investigation."

Nguyen Trung Kien, counselor of the Vietnamese Embassy in South Africa, said he became aware of the case through local media. But he could not confirm that the two men are Vietnamese nationals.

"The embassy is contacting relevant agencies here for official information before taking any further action," Kien said.

In April, the rotting, bullet-addled carcass of a Javan rhino was found in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong. Conservationists say the discovery may well have marked the end of Vietnam's last unique subspecies of the horned mammal.

Emerging trade

Sarah Morgan, a communications officer for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC's Greater Mekong Program, said that the illegal trade of rhino horns between South Africa and Vietnam is a fairly new development.

"No study has been conducted specifically focusing on the trade between South Africa and Vietnam, as it has only recently emerged as an issue in the past few years," Morgan said. "However, as you can see from [the recent arrest], it is a growing issue and one that they are very serious about in South Africa."

According to a story published last month on Newscientist.com, Africa's rhinoceros population generally stabilized in the 1990s before poaching began ravaging the numbers in 2005.

"A belief began to emerge in Vietnam that if you were suffering from cancer and took a dose of crushed rhino horn in a liquid it would halt the progress of the disease," the magazine's website quoted John Sellar, the chief enforcement officer for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as saying.

The belief spread "like wildfire" he says, and coincided with increasing affluence in Vietnam. As a result, the trade turned its ugly eye on South Africa - one of the few countries that still had a healthy rhino population.

Counselor Kien of the Vietnamese Embassy in South Africa has denied that most of the rhino horns poached in South Africa are sent to Vietnam. "Vietnam may be used as one of the transit points in a much bigger Asian market," he said.

"In Vietnam, it is illegal to possess, transport and trade rhino horns," he added.

Traditional Chinese medicine considers rhino horn one of three main restoratives. Shaved or ground into a powder, the horn is dissolved in boiling water and used to treat fevers, rheumatism, and gout. East Asians also consider it a powerful aphrodisiac. It is also considered something of a status symbol, they say.

As a result of worldwide demand, at least 268 rhinos have been killed in South Africa this year for their horns. Last year, the fatalities totaled 122.

Experts inside South Africa say that the unprecedented poaching has claimed almost one percent of the existing rhino population. The herds continue to grow at between 3-11.5 percent annually.

Beefing up bilateral enforcement

On October 22, a delegation of South African officials with a stake in rhino conservation, arrived in Hanoi and met with their Vietnamese counterparts to address the growing illicit trade between the two countries.

In the course of the meetings, South Africa and Vietnam agreed to develop a Memorandum of Understanding which will form the basis of future law enforcement collaborations, according to Morgan of TRAFFIC.

She said a Vietnamese delegation is planning to visit South Africa some time in April 2011, when both parties hope to have the document ready to sign.

Vietnamese conservation agencies have committed to continuing police liaison/intelligence-sharing with South African Interpol officials. The South African embassy in Hanoi will also play a greater role on the issue and will use diplomatic channels to assist in combating illegal rhino horn trade, according to a TRAFFIC statement.

To aid enforcement of South Africa's policies on legal horn trade, South Africa will donate microchip scanners to Vietnam's customs agencies so that they can appropriately track microchip-planted horns. The country's authorities plan to share DNA info on rhino horns with Vietnamese authorities.

It has also agreed to tighten its monitoring of trophy horns, which are legal in South Africa.

Vietnam has been increasingly implicated as a main driver of the illegal rhino horn trade in Asia, and a major trade route has emerged connecting illegally killed rhinos in South Africa with consumers in Vietnam, TRAFFIC said in a recent report.

This past July, a Vietnamese national was sentenced to three years in prison by the HCMC People's Court for trying to smuggle five horns weighing 18 kg through Ho Chi Minh City International Airport.

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