Vietnam driving increase in rhino poaching: experts

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Arrest of Vietnamese man in South Africa with three rhino horns cited as evidence


South African protesters hold signs during a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Pretoria last year. Photo: AFP

Vietnam is driving the increase in rhino poaching in South Africa and needs to get tough against those involved, international experts say.

They said the recent arrest of a Vietnamese man in South Africa for rhino horn smuggling was only the latest proof of increased Vietnamese involvement.

"There is an urgent need for Vietnam to acknowledge this issue and help prevent the killing of rhinos by enforcing strong penalties against citizens involved in illegal wildlife trade," said Jo Shaw, East/Southern Africa program officer for the international wildlife trading monitor network TRAFFIC.

On April 22, a 25-year-old Vietnamese man was arrested in Johannesburg as he was trying to leave the country with three rhino horns. The customs officers at the OR Tambo International Airport found the horns when they were searching his bags, the Indo-Asian News Service quoted the South Africa Revenue Service (SARS) as saying Tuesday (April 24).

The man, Duong That Tung, had traveled to South Africa before and was being closely watched when he was arrested, SARS spokesperson Adrian Lackay said.

The horns weighed about 13.9 kg in total and had an estimated street value of 7.5 million rand (about US$900,000).

Tung was produced before the Kempton Park Regional Court on Tuesday, April 24, Lackay added.

Another SARS official, Charles van Niekerk, told Vietweek via email that Tung is from Thai Nguyen Province and he "will be charged in terms of alleged violations of South Africa's Customs and Excise Act on charges relating to the smuggling of restricted goods (rhino horn) and the National Environmental Biodiversity Act for the illegal possession of rhino horn.

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Nguyen Trung Kien, counselor of the Vietnamese Embassy in South Africa, told Vietweek on the phone on Tuesday that he was only aware of the case through the media.

"We have contacted [South African] authorities to request further information," he said.

Meanwhile, Shaw said the arrested man, known as That Thai Dung, was known to South African authorities and being monitored throughout his visit.

"I think this sends a clear message that South Africa is clamping down hard on those involved in smuggling of rhino horn," he told Vietweek.

"Sadly, the rate of poaching continues to rise."

According to the South Africa National Parks (SANParks), up to 448 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa last year and the latest statistics from the South African government is that 181 rhinos were killed as of April 19.

Richard Thomas, communications coordinator for TRAFFIC International, said Vietnam should take more action to raise awareness of rhino protection. He said campaigns should also stress there is no scientific evidence for the horn's therapeutic properties.

"This [the latest arrest] appears to be further evidence of Vietnamese involvement in the trafficking of rhino horns from Africa part of a crime wave that benefits nobody except the criminals masterminding the rhino poaching and those who persist in spreading false rumors about the medical efficacy of horn," Thomas said.

According to SANParks, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs has made a public appeal to assist in fighting rhino poaching.

But "the anti-poaching war intensifies whilst poachers also become brazen," it said in a statement on April 20.

"The Kruger National Park continues to bear the brunt of the losses with 111 rhinos having being killed illegally since the beginning of this year. However it is still encouraging to note that 113 suspected poachers have been arrested this year," it said.

In 2011, 232 rhino poachers were arrested in South Africa.

The rhinoceros was pushed to the edge of extinction in the 1970s before its recovery to about 28,000 individuals at present, mainly in South Africa. In 2010, remains of a Javan rhino were found at the Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam. It was believed to be the country's last wild rhino.

Early this month, South Africa called for renewed cooperation with Vietnam after a "shocking number" of rhinos were reported dead in 2012.

Vietnamese authorities have 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 say.

Demand for rhino horn has soared in recent years among Vietnamese and Chinese who are willing to pay through the nose for one of the most-sought products falsely believed to be able to cure an array of ailments. Horns can now fetch up to around $100,000 per kilogram, experts said.

Some Vietnamese, especially the nouveau riche, are fueling the local demand for rhino horns, believing it can cure 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.

A recent AP story quoted Nguyen Huu Truong, a doctor at Hanoi's Center for Allergy Clinical Immunology, as saying that a handful of patients visit him each year complaining of rashes he links to rhino horn consumption.

"Many Vietnamese believe that anything expensive is good, but if you're going to spend a lot of money on rhino horn, you might as well bite your nails."

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