VietNamNet Bridge –Viet Nam News reporter Le Quynh Anh discussed Viet Nam's role in the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa with parties involved in a recent meeting on the future of rhinos.
This theme was high on the agenda at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) 16th meeting that wrapped up on March 14 in Bangkok.
Have the allegations by international conservation groups that Viet Nam is the main destination for rhino horns been substantiated?
* Do Quang Tung, Deputy Director of Viet Nam CITES Management Authority:
We do not deny that there is rhino horn consumption going on here in Viet Nam but to claim that Viet Nam is the main market for rhino horns is a big exaggeration.
Assume that all 668 rhinos which were poached last year in South Africa were mainly to feed Vietnamese demand, and given that each horn weighs 5-7 kilos, this would means about 7-9 tonnes of horns would have been smuggled into Viet Nam.
This raises the question: how would this huge volume of horns have been consumed?
According to conservation groups, the rhino horns are used by terminally ill patients who are under the belief that they are a magical cure for cancer.
But statistics show there are about 200,000 cancer patients every year in Viet Nam and many of them are poor. How were many of them would be able to afford such a commodity which is more expensive than gold?
For those who could, the traditional use is a small amount (hundreds of grams) of powder for oral intake and this might be sufficient for a couple of years. As you can see, the numbers just don't add up.
They also mention a group of affluent users who buy whole horns. But again the same question: how many of them could actually pay for them?
Given the price of a kilogramme of rhino horn is US$50,000, prospective buyers would have to pay up to $500,000 for a pair of horns.
Who are those people, when according to the list of the top 200 richest people in Viet Nam, the assets of those in the lower ranking are worth no more than $2.2 million.
Does it make sense to you that people would spend one fourth of their assets to acquire one pair of horns?
And how could smugglers move that huge amount of horns from South Africa to Viet Nam without being detected when the trade routes involve a number of countries?
* Naomi Doak, co-ordinator of the Southeast Asia-Greater Mekong Programme of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network:
The intelligence and evidence that we have at the moment all point to Viet Nam as the main destination for rhino horns.
If this were not a real story, we at TRAFFIC would be the first to stand up and admit that we were wrong but this is not the case.
You can argue that we must provide the exact amount of rhino horn coming into Viet Nam but at some point you just have to say enough is enough and take action because rhino can't wait any longer. It might be too late if we wait until the desired statistics come out.
To begin with, to investigate any substance that is illegal, quite often we rely on the media. And there are journalists who have come to Viet Nam and have no trouble identifying people who allow themselves to be filmed consuming rhino horn. From the investigation report video footage we can tell there is consumption of rhino horn in Viet Nam.
Secondly, most of the arrests of people moving and transporting rhino horns are Vietnamese. In addition, there are proportions of people in Viet Nam who can afford it. It was reported that $10 billion worth of luxury goods came into Viet Nam and were sold.
If there is no one here in Viet Nam consuming rhino horn, why is there an entire village in Bat Trang dedicated to making grinding bowls? What happens to all of those bowls? If they don't sell, the makers will change to something else but, from what we have seen, the village keeps making them.
It's worth noting that the traditional reason for rhino horn use has shifted from merely using small amounts for medical purposes.
We have identified the main consumer group for rhino horns is a small proportion of the Vietnamese population who wish to display their newly garnered wealth. People are not buying in kilos any more, they want to buy a whole horn, so we are talking about 700 horns.
Do you think that there are not 700 families in Viet Nam who could afford this? It is highly possible.
Is Viet Nam only a transit country in the rhino horn trade chain?
Tung: Yes. Our intelligence shows a majority of the rhino horns in Viet Nam will be transferred to other countries as smugglers take advantage of the long and difficult-to-monitor border trails. It would be easier to go via border trails rather than direct routes.
Doak: I do not buy into that idea because why would they stop in Viet Nam to risk getting caught here? There are many ways the Chinese use to transport ivory which don't come through Viet Nam. And if that is really the case, then why are the authorities not stopping it?
What were the reaction of other parties on Viet Nam's stance on the rhino poaching crisis during the CITES meeting?
Tung: During the CITES working session on rhinos, I took that opportunity to clarify the role of Viet Nam in the rhino poaching crisis using the reasoning I said earlier.
We also made it very clear that our responsibility and our commitment and willingness to take action to address the crisis.
I don't think we should waste any more time to argue whether Viet Nam is the main consumer or not but rather to move forward with how we should improve the situation.
We are committed to do our best to co-operate with other parties and interested stakeholders to implement the decisions tabled by the rhino working group.
* Albi Modise, communications director of South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs:
It is not South Africa's policy to analyse and react to Viet Nam's point of view as stated at CITES.
Doak: This CITES conference is the first time Viet Nam has acknowledged it was part of the problem and wanted to work with other parties.
This is a big step for Viet Nam because if a consumer country is not acknowledging its role, it will be very difficult for the two countries to work together.
Viet Nam has been under increasing pressure from the international communities because more rhinos are dying this year. One of the reasons was that we refused to recognise the problem. Unless Viet Nam does something, the pressure will grow.
The worst thing that could happen to Viet Nam is trade sanctions, but nobody has mentioned this at the conference yet.
Next year, when the standing committee meets again, if Viet Nam can't show it is making progress on certain things, they could ask for trade sanctions.
This means the CITES countries agree on not trading with Viet Nam in any CITES species such as crocodiles, some timber and seahorses.
What is going to be done in order to improve the situation?
Tung: As I stated at the CITES meeting, Viet Nam recognised the need to strengthen law enforcement and raise awareness of our people both living inside the country and those living overseas. So our efforts should be channeled to realise that need.
In the upcoming time, we will continue to work with South Africa to finalise our joint working plan. We will also formulate a campaign aiming to reduce demand and strengthen the management of rhino horn trophies.
But I want to provide the context information to this: just like any developing country, we are facing limited national budget and resources for wildlife conservation activities.
Our endemic species are under threat of extinction from rampant deforestation and we have to prioritise the allocation of the scant resources to our species first.
Therefore, I have asked CITES to consider Viet Nam as a priority country and provide financial and technical assistance for rhino protection efforts.
We have the will and are taking steps towards addressing this issue, but international support is necessary if we want to make real progress.
Modise: South Africa and Viet Nam negotiated an implementation plan prior to the 16th CITES Conference of Parties in Bangkok, to activate the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two countries in December 2012. The plan was finalised on the sidelines of CITES and will be signed in the coming weeks.
Doak: Tung is right when saying it is very difficult for a country to put the resources in the species that doesn't exist in that country because there are always other higher priorities.
I understand that but Viet Nam wants to be part of a global economy, and the crisis of this animal has just begun so Viet Nam has to take some responsibility.
The CITES Management Authorities alone can't fix this problem, other parts of the Government have to prioritise this. Environmental police and customs have to do more as well. I think they are probably doing a lot but not enough.
We need to help them detect the rhino horns. Especially given the backdrop of illegal trading is often organised crime. Every time we've thought we had worked out a way to detect smugglers, they are one step ahead of us.
There are a lot of people willing to lend a helping hand. For example, our organisation can provide training on law enforcement, and we are running a training workshop for customs officials, police and CITES people next month.
But the way forward is to reduce demand because the horns will keep coming here as long as there is a market. The consumption of rhino horns has to be seen as socially unacceptable. It is everybody's job.
We have to make people aware, make them care that an animal is dying out. Our next step is to find a way to get the message to reach to the core user group.