Small step forward in fight to save rhino

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White rhino graze at a private game reserve in North West Province, near Brits, South Africa, on April 10. Conservationists have urged Vietnam to seriously implement laws and South Africa to suspend permits for hunting rhinos to protect the species.

Experts have welcomed the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) by Vietnam and South Africa to curb rampant rhino poaching, with the caveat that political will to implement is key to its success.

The agreement was signed last Monday (December 10) amidst widespread concerns about increasing rhino poaching in the African country, allegedly driven by demand in Vietnam.

Cao Duc Phat, Vietnam's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, said at the signing ceremony that his ministry and several other government agencies would submit a proposal to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung this month to ban the import of all rhino specimens to Vietnam.

But conservationists were not very hopeful about the move.

"I wouldn't say a ban on import of trophy horns would be a particularly important development. There are very few trophy horns that enter Vietnam through legal routes," said Richard Thomas, a spokesman of the international wildlife trading monitoring network TRAFFIC.

He said the MoU denotes real co-operation on enforcement issues and information exchange between the two nations that can result in action to tackle the criminal syndicates behind rhino horn trafficking and rhino poaching.

"An agreement is only as good as the political will to implement it, but with official government recognition in Vietnam that the country does indeed have a serious issue with illegal rhino horn trade, this agreement should mark the start of real, concerted action to address the issue," he told Vietweek.

On Monday, Phat and Edna Molewa, South Africa's Water and Environmental Affairs Minister signed the MoU to improve co-operation between the two states on biodiversity conservation and protection including tackling illegal wildlife trafficking.

Although the pact refers only in general terms to address illegal wildlife smuggling, the wildlife conservation organization WWF said in a statement that there are clear indications that rhino horn trafficking will be top of the new co-operation agenda.

"South Africa is looking forward to receiving the close co-operation from Vietnamese partners to stop the illegal trade of rhino horns from South Africa to Vietnam," Molewa said at the signing ceremony in Hanoi.

Minister Phat said the Vietnamese government was always concerned about crime relating to wildlife, especially "rare, precious and endangered species including rhinos and its derivatives."

At least 618 rhinos have been killed so far this year for their horns in South Africa, nearly double the number poached in 2010.

The horns, used as ornaments or in traditional medicines in Asia, can fetch up to €50,000 (US$65,100) a kilo on the black market.

A total of 257 people have been arrested so far this year in South Africa in relation to the illegal practice, including individuals from Vietnam and China.

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.

In April, South Africa suspended issuing the license to Vietnamese hunters following poaching concerns.

Hunting vs. poaching

Hailing the agreement between Vietnam and South Africa as a key cooperation initiative, Naomi Doak, coordinator of the TRAFFIC's Southeast Asia greater Mekong program said there should be clear actions.

"Vietnam reported 12 cases being prosecuted but now we need to see these cases go forward and strong penalties to people found guilty.

"We need in-country seizures of people selling rhino horns in the market and strong action taken against people claiming even fake rhino horns," she told Vietweek.

However, she doubted if the agreement would be effective in reducing the poaching in South Africa: "With no hunting permits awarded to Vietnamese nationals since April, I am not sure how this will make any difference."

She said that although there have been no applications from Vietnamese for the hunting license, they are still have involved in the hunts.

"We have seen a spike in hunting permit applications from Eastern Europe and investigations have resulted in the hunters admitting they were hired by Vietnamese nationals," she said.

Doak said South African agencies have been under pressure to stop the trophy hunts and a number of organizations are still pushing this.

"There is pressure to stop the hunts but it brings in so much money that it is a hard push," she said.

Minister Molewa said the hunting industry contributes substantially to the economy of the country.

"In the 2010 hunting season for which comprehensive information is available, total revenues of approximately R1.1 billion ($127 million) were generated by the local and trophy hunting industries collectively.

"This amount only reflects the revenue generated through accommodation and species fees. The true revenue is therefore substantially higher, as the amount I am referring to does not even include revenue generated through the associated industries as a result of the multiplier effect."

South Africa and Swaziland are the only two countries in the world to legalize rhino hunting.

At the first Hunting Indaba meeting held in North West Province late October, Molewa said: "I am of the firm belief that the hunting industry and the game farming industry are important partners, who play a key role in terms of conservation, tourism, and economic development."

However, in a recent move, South African Minister of the Presidency, Obed Bapela, visited the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in the North West to consider making some policy changes.

Bapela said it has come to their attention that the issuing of permits for rhino hunting might be an exacerbating factor in rhino poaching. He wants to see if the system can be changed to combat the scourge, South Africa Broadcasting Corporation reported Tuesday.

The issuing of rhino hunting permits by North West government officials is already under investigation after complaints earlier this year, the corporation said in a website report.

In a recent interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, Van Ngoc Thinh of WWF Vietnam said his organization does not support sport hunting, possession and displaying of rhino horns for any purpose besides conservation.

But, he also said that sport hunting was "one of the reasons that motivate the poaching that could lead to a decline and extinction of rare species."

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