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The Mail & Guardian has reported that Vietnam has FAILED to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with South Africa that would have addressed the rhino poaching crisis.

According to Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) spokesperson, Roopa Singh, the MoU wasn’t signed because the relevant government minister from Vietnam was ‘unavailable’. Both countries are attending a CITES meeting in Hyderabad, India, and were scheduled to sign the agreement, which has been years in the making.

This is very bad news on a lot of fronts. Why?

According to a recent TRAFFIC report, Vietnam is the MAJOR destination for poached rhino horn. (At this point, very little evidence suggests that China – a regularly cited culprit – receives much horn at all.) But, according to the same report and independent investigations by journalist Karl Ammann, there is barely ANY enforcement of wildlife laws in Vietnam.

Vietnam is a signatory to CITES, which has banned the trade in rhino horn (except for the export of legally hunted rhino horn trophies – more about that later). Despite this illegal animal trade and the consumption of endangered species products it is simply not considered important. (Amman illustrates this by saying that the brother of his Vietnamese fixer had recently been released from prison where he served 20 years for drug offenses; by way of contrast Ammann DID NOT HEAR OF ONE case where anyone had been prosecuted for wildlife crimes).

rhino poaching, CITES, Tim Jackson, Africa Geographic, Vietnam rhino
© Tim Jackson

Not only does Vietnam not enforce wildlife trade laws, it seems not to care one whit about it. This is not the first time the country has failed to show up or participate in high-level discussions concerning the rhino-poaching crises. Earlier this year, Edna Molewa, SA’s minister of Environment Affairs, requested that Vietnam undertake an investigation to verify that all rhino horn trophies exported to the country were still in the hands of the people listed on the CITES permits. (This is an attempt to crack down on the practice of pseudo-hunts – Vietnamese ‘trophy hunter’ comes to SA, kills a rhino with a legal permit, takes the mounted horn back to Vietnam and promptly sells it.) Has she received the information she’s asked for. Nope.

So, what we have here is a situation where South Africa’s rhinos are currently being killed at the rate of 1.2 per day (and brace yourselves, we’re heading into a busy time of year for poachers). The overwhelming majority of horn is going to a country that, basically, doesn’t seem to care at all. (In fact, there is probably a very good chance that there are people in government who use rhino horn themselves.)

This is terrible news for activists who wish to address the crisis by working to reduce demand. If you don’t have any official support or sanction for your campaigns, it makes things much harder.

This is also terrible news for pro-trade activists. The potential size of the market aside, you simply cannot do business with some one who doesn’t care whether they are selling legal or illegal products. You cannot do business with someone that doesn’t give a monkeys about your product. Would tobacco companies do business with vendors who sell their products – and the rip-offs – side by side? Not a chance. And that is what we are talking about here.

I see that some people on the M&G site are calling for a boycott of Vietnamese goods – and travel – until their government comes to the party. I’m there; I’m so there. We have to start getting tough with Vietnam, because they are clearly not getting it.

Read the Mail & Guardian report here: http://mg.co.za/article/2012-10-18-vietnam-snubs-sa-on-key-rhino-poaching-agreement

Read TRAFFIC’s excellent report here: www.traffic.org/species-reports/traffic_species_mammals66.pdf

Kafunta Safaris
Sarah Borchert

Sarah Borchert was previously the editor of the print edition of Africa Geographic magazine.