Vietnam made headlines this week for burning tons of ivory and rhino horn in the run-up to a high-profile anti-trafficking conference in Hanoi. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, participants in a public hearing concluded that despite these dramatic public gestures, the country is falling short of its obligations to curb the wildlife trade.
Following the hearing — held Nov. 14-15 at the Vredespaleis (Peace Palace) in The Hague, Netherlands — an independent panel of legal experts determined the government of Vietnam fails to comply with international conventions the country has signed by allowing illegal wildlife trafficking networks to operate with near impunity within its borders.
The panel called on Vietnam to take stronger measures to enforce the relevant laws and dismantle wildlife trafficking networks operating in the country. It also recommended Vietnam create an interdisciplinary police task force to deal with root causes such as corruption and to bring perpetrators of wildlife trafficking to justice.
480 kilograms of ivory for sale in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of WJC.
The hearing was organized by Netherlands-based NGO Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), which recently conducted an investigation into wildlife trafficking in the country. “Our hope by holding this hearing is that it will lead to the Vietnamese authorities arresting and sentencing the individuals identified in our investigation,” Olivia Swaak-Goldman, director of the WJC, told Mongabay. “The problem is not a lack of laws – these are already in place. What is lacking is the political will to deal with these crimes.”
The hearing came days after Vietnamese authorities made an effort to step up measures against illegal wildlife trade by publicly destroying two tons of ivory and 70 kilograms of rhino horn seized from illegal traders. Authorities also arrested three people, including one of the persons of interest identified in the WJC investigation. The hearing was also timed to precede an international conference on combating the illegal wildlife trade, which will be held in Hanoi later this week (Sept. 17-18). Fears are Vietnamese action towards stopping wildlife trafficking will wither once the conference is over.
During the investigation that led up to the hearing, the WJC identified Vietnam as a global hub for trafficking in rhino horn, ivory, tiger parts, and other illegal wildlife products. The country serves as both a destination country for these products and a backdoor to China’s enormous market. According to the WJC, trafficking in illegal wildlife has become the fourth largest criminal activity worldwide, after narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking. In addition to having a detrimental effect on wildlife populations and societies in source countries, the international trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products has been connected to other crimes such as money laundering and human trafficking, as well as to terrorist organizations that fund activities through the illegal wildlife trade.
According to Tom Milliken, rhino expert at Traffic International and author of a recent report on the illegal wildlife trade, “Vietnam is right now driving the trade in rhino horn. The problem is that many people in Vietnam regard rhino horn as a social product, a symbol of power, status and wealth.” Milliken, who testified at the hearing, added: “You see groups of men who put rhino horn powder in their rice wine and drink it to prevent a hangover.”
The WJC’s undercover agents focused on several small villages around the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, identifying the town of Nhi Khe as the most important. During an initial visit to the area in 2015, investigators found that rhino horn and ivory products were sold on the streets of Nhi Khe in broad daylight. “They saw an open and thriving market,” said Marcus Asner, a former assistant attorney and advisor on wildlife trafficking to President Obama, who guided the audience through the anonymized evidence. Fifteen different businesses and fifty-one individuals were identified as engaging in trafficking business, according to Asner.
“One of the persons identified as involved in the trade was a man going by the nickname of ‘Uncle Rhino Horn’,” WJC senior researcher Pauline Verheij explained. “He lived in a large mansion, richly decorated with rosewood furniture, and had a Mercedes E-series parked outside his house. This indicates how lucrative the rhino horn trade can be, given the fact that he only recently got involved in the business.”
The team further discovered that a woman anonymized as “Person of Interest number five,” was at the core of the trafficking business in Nhi Khe village. “She first appeared in footage from investigative journalist Karl Amman from 2012, and was encountered by our investigators during multiple visits to the area in 2015 and 2016,” Verheij told Mongabay. “She is trafficking huge amounts of ivory and rhino horn, amounting to millions of U.S. dollars per year in value. One of our sources reported on video that she had been caught by Vietnamese authorities a few years ago, but got out by paying a large sum of money. She still operates, seemingly with impunity, in Nhi Khe village.”
Desert elephants in Namibia. Poaching of these and other African species has spiked in recent years, driven largely by East Asia’s demand for ivory. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
All evidence on these and other identified individuals involved in the business was put together in a Map of Facts, which the WJC presented to the Vietnamese authorities in January 2016. It contained directly observed evidence of 907 elephants, 579 rhinos, and 225 tigers, among other endangered species. The rhino horn alone represented an estimated value of $42.7 million. “Unfortunately, we received little reaction from the Vietnamese authorities,” Swaak-Goldman said. In March, two different investigators went back to Vietnam as undercover agents to assess the situation and discovered that trafficking was no longer taken place out in the open. “The trade went indoors,” Verheij said. “They would pull a tray from under a table, or ivory tusks from under a bed. So while it’s difficult to separate cause and effect, after the presentation of the Map of Facts the situation in Nhi Khe changed at least a little bit.”
An updated Map of Facts, containing additional evidence and numbering around 5,000 pages, was delivered to the Vietnamese authorities in August of this year. One month later, to increase pressure, the WJC announced a public hearing. This was delayed to November due to signs that Vietnamese authorities were starting to take action, such as the issuance of a directive by the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Sept. 17, instructing authorities and law enforcement agencies across the country to take urgent measures to combat illegal wildlife trade. “At one point we even considered not holding a public hearing. But up to date still no significant action has been undertaken against the perpetrators identified in the Map of Facts,” Swaak-Goldman said.
The Vietnamese government was repeatedly asked to attend the public hearing to explain measures taken so far to dismantle the trafficking network, Swaak-Goldman said. “They chose to send an observer.” At the same time, the recent burning of ivory and rhino horn and simultaneous arrests can be seen as steps in the right direction. Seizures of Ivory and rhino horn in Vietnamese ports and airports have also increased in recent months, as well as inspections in villages like Nhi Khe. “These are great actions, definitely a great step, but it’s not enough,” Swaak-Goldman said. “We need them to implement the relevant parts of the penal code, hold unexpected raids, arrest people, and bring them to justice. We’re very happy with the recommendations of the Accountability Panel. I really hope the international community and the Vietnamese government will take this up.”