A new report issued by TRAFFIC, a non-governmental organization dedicated to monitoring wildlife trade, describes the latest depressing statistics surrounding the epidemic-proportion illegal rhino horn trade between South Africa and Asia.
Rhinos and many other animals around the world are currently being poached largely to satiate demand in countries like China and Vietnam, where certain animal body parts can fetch the equivalent price of their weight in gold. In those countries, many people use wildlife and animal body parts for traditional Chinese medicine, as delicacies at restaurants, as exotic pets or as trophies or clothing accessories.
Ten years ago, the new report points out, Vietnamese nationals were already taking part in fake hunting trips in South Africa. They would pose as big game tourists, then take their claimed rhino horn trophy back to Vietnam to enter it on the black market. Some of the “hunters” reportedly didn’t even know how to use a gun, including Thai sex workers that business men would hire to attend the hunts in their stead. According to the report, some Vietnamese embassy officials even took part in the con. In 2012, South Africa stopped issuing any hunting permits to Vietnamese nationals in an effort to stamp out this problem.
South Africa started cracking down on the pretend hunts, but like a game of Whack a Mole Gopher Bash, rhino horn thefts and poaching started popping up all over the place. Around 65 rhino horns went missing from public displays and museums in South Africa, with similar thefts occurring in Europe and the U.S.
Meanwhile, poachers snuck onto game ranches and nature reserves to slaughter rhinos under the cloak of darkness. Sometimes, they were aided by corrupt “conservationists” or wildlife veterinarians. At the end of 2011, a record 448 rhinos were dead, although if current trends continue 2012 will top 500 deaths.
Already this year, South African officials have arrested almost 200 people for wildlife-related crimes. The criminals are often connected to other illegal activity, too, including diamond smuggling and drug and human trafficking. Of those, Asian nationals included 43 arrests, most of whom Vietnamese, followed by Chinese and a few Thai and Malaysian citizens.
Usurping China, Vietnam now fuels the majority of demand for rhino horn. The report elaborates:
Four main user groups have been identified in Viet Nam: the principal one being those who believe in rhino horn’s detoxification properties, especially following excessive intake of alcohol, rich food and “the good life”. Affluent users routinely grind up rhino horn and mix the powder with water or alcohol as a hangover-cure and general health tonic.
Horn is also used as a supposed cancer cure by terminally ill patients, who are sometimes deliberately targeted by rhino horn “touts” as part of a cynical marketing ploy to increase the profitability of the illicit trade.
“The surge in rhino horn demand from Viet Nam has nothing to do with meeting traditional medicine needs, it’s to supply a recreational drug to party goers or to con dying cancer patients out of their cash for a miracle rhino horn cure that will never happen,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC rhino expert, and a co-author of the new report.
TRAFFIC hopes the new report will encourage the Vietnamese government to get proactive about stopping the trade. Most wildlife criminals, if caught in Vietnam or other Asian nations, get away with little more than a fine worth a mere fraction of the horn’s market value or a couple nights in prison, though in both Vietnam and China rhino horn is considered an illegal substance. Vietnam’s own Javan rhino went extinct two years ago, the last one shot in a national park and found with its horn sawed off.
Even if South Africa bolsters its own laws and enforcement, without Vietnam and the rest of Asia’s cooperation, the poaching will continue until Africa’s rhinos are likewise wiped out.
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