Environmentalists have called on Da Lat authorities to make an example of Tu Loan, a prominent wildlife meat trader that was implicated in last week's restaurant raids.
"We urge the Lam Dong courts, Procuracy [prosecutor's office] and police to carry out detailed investigations, prosecute and punish Tu Loan and her associates to the full extent of the law," said Dr. Scott Roberton, Wildlife Conservation Society's Country Representative for Vietnam.
On August 26, seized hundreds of kilograms of wildlife meat during a raid on 12 restaurants in Da Lat. About two-thirds of the meat, weighing more than 200 kilograms, was found at the restaurant run by Tu Loan, who also owns the eponymous zoo in town.
"We would specifically recommend that her zoo [be] closed down and the animals placed in legally operating and conservation-focused facilities; for Tu Loan and her associates to lose their license to operate restaurants in Lam Dong," he said.
Roberton called for a coordinated national campaign to expose and prosecute the international wildlife trafficking ring that Loan is believed to be a part of. Failure to do so would have even more harmful consequences, he said.
"Lam Dong Province has just lost what was probably Vietnam's last rhino to the illegal wildlife trade. If strict and effective deterrents are not given to a known rhino horn trader in the province, what hope does any wildlife have in the country?" he asked.
THE HIT LIST
The Lam Dong Forest Protection Department led an enforcement campaign on August 26 targeting restaurants suspected of selling illegal wildlife dishes in Da Lat. They seized over 300kg of butchered wildlife in the action.
The meat included wild pig, civet, pangolin, porcupine, mouse-deer, monitor lizard, bear paw, bamboo rat, snake, sambar, stuffed skins of black-shanked douc langur, wild cat, clouded leopard, Oriental small-clawed otter, serow, muntjac, flying squirrel, common palm civet, binturong and masked palm civet.
About 200kg out of total 300kg of confiscated meat were seized at the Tu Loan Restaurant on Hai Ba Trung Street.
Subsequent raids by the Lam Dong Forest Protection Department were conducted on September 1 at 17 restaurants in Lam Ha, Duc Trong, Di Linh and Bao Loc districts. Park rangers seized around 30kg of wildlife meat and 12 live wild creatures, including one leopard cat.
Following the bust on August 26, the Lam Dong Forest Protection Agency instructed its Da Lat branch to continue their investigations before taking further measures. An unnamed source said police could press criminal charges in the Tu Loan Restaurant case.
Roberton said that Loan represents a very well-known wildlife trading family that has links to wildlife trafficking rings stretching to Africa, Myanmar and America.
"Studies also suggest [...] her family operates wholesale wildlife trading activities directly from her house including rhino horn trade, illegal wild-meat restaurants, and a zoo that launders protected species," he said.
Hailing the recent wildlife bust in Lam Dong, he also called for stronger commitment by provincial authorities in tackling illegal wildlife trade.
"Our experiences have highlighted that it is not really an issue of low staff capacity, inadequate equipment or finances, weak legislation or any of the other excuses we regularly hear. It comes down to a lack of commitment by many agencies and provincial governments throughout the country to take wildlife violations seriously and focus their attention and resources to addressing them.
"The commitment shown by Lam Dong Forest Protection Department should be celebrated. They are role models to wildlife protection agencies across the country. However, it begs the question why other provinces aren't also doing this and what needs to be done to catalyze similar campaigns in every town and city in Vietnam," he said.
Steven Galster, director of the Freeland Foundation an international conservation and human rights organization working across Asia, also expressed his concern over private zoos getting involved in the illegal wildlife trade.
"There have been several trends in wildlife crime, including traffickers using private zoos and captive breeding facilities as laundering facilities.
"We have also noticed more and more regional cross-border trafficking connections to Vietnam, where various wild animals such as pangolins, turtles, snakes, tigers and other species are consumed or transported onward to China," he said.