Vietnam urged to join global rhino protection efforts

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The rhino might be extinct in Vietnam, but the country still has a stake in the global anti-poaching fight

WWF fieldworkers found several snares set by poachers in Cat Tien National Park in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong, where Vietnam's last rhino is believed to have been shot in the leg and its horn removed. As one of the biggest markets for rhino horn and other wildlife products, Vietnam is important to the global fight against rhino poaching, conservationists say.

When the rotting carcass of a rhino was found in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong last April, it might well have marked the extinction of Vietnam's last unique subspecies of the horned mammal.

However, as one of the Asian nations where demand for rhino horns is high, Vietnam has an important role to play in global efforts to check poaching and smuggling of the herbivorous giant, conservation groups say.

In fact, they have suggested that it would be a strong deterrent against poaching and wildlife trading in general if Vietnam and South Africa worked together to battle rhino poaching.

The call for cooperation came as South Africa launched on Tuesday (October 5) a special wildlife crime unit to tackle a dramatic surge in rhino poaching, driven by demand for the animal's horn in Asia for use in traditional medicines, AFP reported. Rhino poaching has doubled this year in South Africa, with 227 slaughtered so far in 2010 compared to 122 in all of last year, the newswire said.

"This is the most significant step taken towards solving the rhino poaching problem in South Africa for the last five years," said Faan Coetzee, an executant of Endangered Wildlife Trust, a Southern Africa wildlife conservation organization.

Trade in rhino horns is banned internationally, but black market demand has fuelled a rise in high-tech poaching with marksmen shooting tranquilizer darts at the animals from helicopters and then hacking off the horn while they lie unconscious, AFP reported, citing police sources. The animal is left to die, it added.

Traditional Chinese medicine considers rhino horn as one of three main restoratives. Shaved or ground into a powder, the horn is dissolved in boiling water and used to treat fevers, rheumatism, and gout. Among affluent Vietnamese, the horn is also considered a status symbol, a means for people to flaunt their wealth. Rich people and even government officials have been known to give rhino horns to each other.

In fact, Vietnamese nationals operating in South Africa have been identified in rhino crime investigations recently, according to conservation groups.

As South Africa has said it is planning a bilateral meeting with Vietnam to discuss rhino poaching, conservationists are hoping several things will come out of it.

"We would like to see Vietnamese authorities follow up on all its commitments under CITES [to which it is a signatory]. We would like to see a nationwide campaign within Vietnam, to make people aware of the law, of the consequences of their actions, and above all, that rhino horn has no medicinal value," said Cathy Dean, director of UK-based NGO Save the Rhino International.

"If the government can help change public opinion within Vietnam, that would set a good example for other countries to follow," Dean said. Vietnam could play an important role in persuading other countries in East Asia [such as China, Thailand, South Korea and Malaysia] that using rhino horn in medicinal products is illegal and ineffective, she added.

"Vietnam is a very important part of the global fight against rhino poaching and wildlife trade, as one of the biggest traders of and markets for rhino horn and other wildlife products," said Sarah Brook, species coordinator of the WWF Vietnam Program.

The demand for rhino horns in Vietnam has driven poaching to a 15-year-high and pushed the animals perilously close to extinction, a report by the WWF, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC had said in July 2009. This has also made the country a major destination for the horns, the report said.

Another report commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and produced by IUCN Rhino Specialist Group and TRAFFIC also confirmed last November that Vietnam has become an end-use market for wildlife products in general and rhino horns in particular.

Conservationists also called on Vietnam to take a stronger stance against rhino horn criminals by imposing the strongest penalties possible.

A Ho Chi Minh City appeals court in late July sentenced a Hanoian to three years in jail for smuggling rhino horns from South Africa into Vietnam in 2008. According to the indictment, Tran Van Lap, 50, was found transporting five horns weighing around 18 kilograms, without a license, at HCMC's Tan Son Nhat International Airport on January 3, 2008.

"We would like to see jail sentences of 10 years or more for convicted rhino horn smugglers," said Dean of Save the Rhino International.

Brook said stricter enforcement of wildlife protection laws is needed, considering the fact that Vietnam's widespread consumption of wildlife is having global as well as national impacts.

"It may be too late for Vietnam's rhino, but the survival of many other species hangs in the balance."

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