Vietnam, S.Africa target illegal rhino hunters

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South Africa and Vietnam have agreed to exchange the names of registered hunters in a bid to stop rhino poachers who obtain hunting permits under false pretences, a spokesman said Monday. 

Authorities are targeting these hunters who take advantage of laws allowing them to export the rhino horn as a hunting trophy to trade it illegally, mostly on the Asian black market, AFP reported. 

"As part of the cooperation between the two countries, Vietnam is going to provide us with a list of accredited trophy hunters," Peter Mbelengwa, a South African government spokesman, was quoted by the newswire as saying.

South Africa, home to more than 20,000 rhinos, or about 90 percent of all rhinos in Africa, lost 668 of them to poachers last year. Over 270 rhinos have been killed illegally in South Africa since the start of the year for their horns.

South Africa's deputy environment minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi and her Vietnamese counterpart Ha Cong Tuan on Monday signed an "action plan" to counter the surge in rhino poaching. 

"We will be able to verify the legitimacy of the hunters," Mbelengwa told AFP. 

Records of rhino hunting permits show Asians are the largest group of applicants, AFP said. 

Thirteen out of 41 permits granted in KwaZulu-Natal province from 2009 to 2011 went to Vietnamese, it added. 

The countries' cooperation plan includes setting up a gene bank and DNA analysis training to track confiscated horns. 

The agreement, which builds on a deal inked last year, covers wildlife crime in general, but rhino poaching is the most pressing issue. 

South Africa has deployed its army, police and helicopters to stop poaching in Kruger National Park, which has been hardest hit. 

Some hunters have been convicted for trading in the horn after legal rhino hunts. 

"You can't say we're only going to follow the poachers. You need to take an integrated approach," Mbelengwa was quoted by AFP as saying.

Big bust

One day prior to the signing of the action plan, Ho Chi Minh City customs officials said they had seized more than seven kilograms of rhino horns amidst international pressure on the country to crank up its efforts to crack down on the illegal trade.  

The officials found the two horns, weighing 7.28 kilograms, wrapped in silver paper and hidden in the luggage of a passenger identified only as 34-year-old N.D.D, who arrived in HCMC on a flight from Doha late Saturday.

The horns were presumably sourced from Africa, the officials said.

D. has been detained pending further investigations, the police said, without elaborating.

Conservationists attending an international conference in March of the 178-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) called on Vietnam in particular to redouble its efforts, along with Mozambique, which was urged to prioritize legislation to prevent rhino poaching and illegal trade.

International conservation groups have identified Vietnam as one of the world's biggest consumers of rhino horns, a move Vietnam has emphatically rejected.

But there is disturbing evidence that among affluent Vietnamese the horn is a status symbol, a means for them to flaunt their wealth.

Rich people and government officials have been known to gift rhino horns to each other. Shaved or ground into powder, the horn is immersed in hot water and mistakenly believed to cure a wide range of ailments including cancer, arthritis, impotence, high-blood pressure and many others.

The rhino horn offers a bigger payoff than other exotic wildlife products such as bear bile or tiger bone paste.

An AP report last year quoted American officials as saying that powder made by crushing the horn fetches up to $55,000 per kilogram in Asia "” a price that tops the US street value of cocaine or around the same price as gold.

At the CITES meeting, Vietnam was asked to develop a secure registration database to track legal rhino horn trophies, and to draw up strategies to reduce demand. 

A Vietnamese representative at the meeting as saying that the country would "do our best" but also call on fellow CITES members states to provide technical and financial support.

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