Vietnam has heavy hand in South African rhino poaching

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Conservationists urge the Vietnamese government to get tough on the rhino horn trade
  Jacques Flamand, leader of the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project in South Africa, administering an antidote to wake up a black rhino being released in its new home. The international wildlife trading monitor network TRAFFIC is urging action by the Vietnamese government to tackle the illegal rhino horn trade. Photo: WWF

The international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC has said a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between South Africa and Vietnam to curb the rampant illegal trade in rhino horns is expected to be signed soon.

South Africa has the world's largest rhino population, and its largest rhino poaching problem. It is also believed to be the major supplier of poached rhino horns in Vietnam, which is accused of being one of the world's biggest consumers of the illegal products.

In several Asian countries, the grounded rhino horn is believed to have medicinal values ranging from as trivial to hangover relief to as important as a cure for terminally ill cancer patients. Many also believe it can enhance male virility.

Richard Thomas, a TRAFFIC spokesman, said the MoU would be a very significant agreement linking the two countries, which are identified by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as a key source (South Africa) and a key market (Vietnam) for the illegal trade in rhino horn.

"[A] commitment from the South African and Vietnamese governments to [work] together to combat illegal crime will send an important message out to the world stage and to the international criminal syndicates involved in the trade," Thomas told Vietweek.

 "South Africa has made a series of legislative and strategic government responses to address the ever-adaptable illegal trade in rhino horn," he added.

"[But] to the best of my knowledge, Vietnam has not made any such comparable efforts to address their part in the illegal rhino horn trade chain."

In 2009, the WWF, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and TRAFFIC reported that the demand for rhino horns in China and Vietnam had driven poaching to a 15-year-high and pushed the animals perilously close to extinction.

However, Vietnamese authorities have shrugged off allegations that most of the rhino horn poached in South Africa is destined for Vietnam. Vietnam may be used as one of the transit points to much bigger Asian markets, they say.


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On August 21, TRAFFIC released another report that documented "how poor compliance over rhino horn stockpile management, loopholes in sport hunting policy, and surging demand for horn in Vietnam created ideal conditions for the involvement of sophisticated criminal networks, leading to a dramatic escalation in poaching in southern Africa."

According to the report, titled The South Africa"”Vietnam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus, since 2003 Vietnamese nationals have participated in "pseudo hunts" for white rhino trophies in South Africa and they are interested not in the hunt but only in the horn.

In terms of the CITES listing, only white rhinos can be commercially hunted with a permit but it is illegal for the trophy owner then to sell the horn. But poachers from China and Vietnam have found a loophole for obtaining rhino horn by participating in legal trophy hunts in South Africa.

Investigations in South Africa have revealed disturbing evidence of organized crime, including the frequent involvement of a small number of Vietnamese nationals in rhino hunting, repeatedly on the same game parks.

Other evidence include numerous cases of Vietnamese "trophy hunters" paying above market price for rhino hunts but then having to be instructed in how to shoot and completely foregoing any proper trophy preparation or the issuance of export permits for rhino trophies to Vietnamese nationals previously linked to ongoing rhino crime.

"With the surging demand from Asia, people willing to pay high prices to get their hands on rhino horn"¦ [without] fear of capture by those smuggling horn, it was perhaps inevitable that this "˜commodity' would catch the attention of the hardened criminal fraternity, creating a "˜perfect storm' for rhino poaching and horn trade," Jo Shaw, a program officer with TRAFFIC and a co-author of the new TRAFFIC report, said in a press release.

South Africa has witnessed a rapid escalation in the poaching of live rhinos, rising from 13 in 2007 to 122 in 2009 and to a record 448 rhinos in 2011.

By July 17 this year, the total stood at 281 rhinos, with a predicted loss of 515 by year-end if current poaching rates continue, TRAFFIC said in the release.

The new report also documented arrests in rhino poaching cases. Of 43 documented rhino-related arrests of Asian nationals so far in South Africa, 24 are Vietnamese and 13 are Chinese, with the rest from Thailand and Malaysia.

"Furthermore, at least three officials based at Vietnam's Embassy in Pretoria have been documented as participants in the illegal rhino horn trade, although the last such case was in late 2008," it said.

The new report identified Vietnam as "the main market" with a surging demand for rhino horn and where serrated rhino horn grinding bowls are widely available for sale.

It called for a number of measures to be taken to address the current crisis, including for Vietnam to "review and strengthen legislation and penalties concerning illegal rhino horn trade," and to "employ effective law enforcement strategies in the market place."

Tom Milliken, a TRAFFIC rhino expert and a co-author of the report, said the surge in rhino horn demand from Vietnam is to supply "a recreational drug to party goers or to con dying cancer patients out of their cash for a miracle rhino horn cure that will never happen."

"This trade leaves a trail of carnage and hapless victims"”both animal and human"”from source to end-use market," he said.

In Vietnam, rhino horn is even prescribed by doctors.

An Italian woman has reportedly contracted breast cancer after ingesting rhino horn prescribed to her by a local doctor during her visit to Vietnam last year.

The 43-year-old woman, whose named was not released, was on holiday in Ho Chi Minh City when she developed a fever, according a report by Italian hospital Policlinico di Bari.

The report obtained by Vietweek said experts there believed there is a strong link between the woman's ingesting of the rhino horn which is rich in keratin, a substance that can cause tumors and her cancer.

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