VIETNAM is key to ending the slaughter of SA’s rhinos, so it is heartening that researchers at wildlife trade monitor Traffic believe the Southeast Asian country’s government is at last starting to take its nationals’ complicity in the illegal horn trade seriously.
Saving SA’s rhinos — more than 80% of the global population — is urgent. If poaching increases at the same rate as it has over the past two years, the species could go into decline from 2016 and become extinct in the wild by 2050, says South African National Parks wildlife veterinary services head Markus Hofmeyr.
Between July 2009 and May this year 48% (185) of the 384 foreigners who hunted rhinos in SA were Vietnamese. It is estimated that since 2003 Vietnamese hunters have paid more than $22m to hunt rhinos in SA.
Anecdotal reports pointing to the complicity of Vietnamese government officials in the illegal trade surface continually. Finally, in April this year, following at least 400 white rhino hunts, SA’s Department of Environmental Affairs stopped issuing Vietnamese nationals with rhino hunting permits.
It marked a sea of change in the Vietnamese government’s attitude.
The South African government has also had a change of heart, says Traffic rhino horn trade expert Tom Milliken. Until last year the government "did not see" Vietnam’s centrality in the crisis. Fingers were pointed at China, but Traffic’s research reveals less illegal trade or complicity in trade, says Endangered Wildlife Trust large mammal trade programme officer Jo Shaw.
There are unanswered questions, such as whether the Chinese are obtaining their horns via Vietnam. This is an excuse the Vietnamese often use to downplay their part in the onslaught.
Interestingly, a decade ago rhino horn was "noticeably absent" from Vietnamese markets — then the economy got going. The largest market for horns is among the young and newly affluent, and 65% of the Vietnamese population is not yet 30.
Between 2003, when the first Vietnamese trophy hunters came to SA, and 2010, 657 horns were legally exported from SA to Vietnam.
But Vietnam’s data shows only 170 horns were legally imported, so 74% of the trade (487 horns) was not declared, according to Traffic’s research on trade between the two countries. The report, three years in the making, was released simultaneously in Johannesburg and Hanoi yesterday.
The horn trade in Vietnam, says Mr Milliken, is inextricably linked to the country’s rising economic fortunes. Vietnam’s 87-million strong population — the world’s 13th largest — is now enjoying the fruits of unprecedented growth. The country is one of the world’s fastest growing economies — its gross domestic product growth is estimated to reach 6.3% next year
Vietnam’s failure to account for legally hunted horns not only fosters "rampant" illegal trade, it has cost its government $2m in lost tax revenue. Horn trade is officially illegal in Vietnam — horns should be imported as trophies only. SA’s rhino horns are legally traded, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) prescriptions. Mr Milliken says pressure on Vietnam is increasing "in the Cites arena" and the country’s government is "beginning to admit it has a serious problem".
For one, it was this year unable to produce details to Cites on the horn it legally imported. Pressure under Cites’ and SA’s ban on hunting licences for Vietnamese nationals really hit home with the Vietnamese government. Now Vietnam has until September 3 to answer 16 detailed questions on where its legally imported horns are, and how they are monitoring them.
Now SA is "in a pivotal situation", says the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Ms Shaw. What happens next will either save or destroy the rhino.