Vietnam – Still Driving the Rhino Poaching Crisis

By Amy Zets, EIA Policy Analyst

Rhinos are dying at a shocking rate – every week news releases remind us that the slaughter of South Africa’s rhinos is still wildly out of control. On average, more than three rhinos are poached each day. This week marks two years since EIA and partners submitted a petition to the U.S. government requesting sanctions against Vietnam for its role in the illegal rhino horn trade. The need for meaningful action is greater now than ever.

As of December 10, 2014, 1,116 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, surpassing 2013’s high of 1,004. This already astonishing number – approximately 5 percent of the total population — also doesn’t account for other rhinos that die in poaching attempts or those calves that die after their mothers are poached, so the number is likely even 30 percent higher. Most of these horns are heading to Vietnam, and others to China.

Urgent action is desperately needed if the killing is to stop.

Knowledgeable sources have confirmed to EIA that rhinos poached in South Africa are killed to order. Rhinos are not killed based on speculation by poachers with the hope that someone will purchase them. Rhinos are being hunted for their horns to fill special orders by Asian consumers. For those involved in this illicit trade, the reward is still greater than the risk. For example, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry embassy staff exposed on South African TV unloading rhino horn from a Vietnamese embassy car have yet to be punished.

The Pelly petition, filed by EIA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Animal Welfare Institute, highlights how Vietnam, the main destination for poached rhino horn, has undermined the effectiveness of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It also calls for trade sanctions to be enacted until the Vietnamese government embraces its responsibility to conserve rhinos consistent with CITES, including full implementation of a domestic ban on rhino horn with appropriate and enforced penalties and ending the domestic demand for rhino horn.

But what about the reports from Vietnam asserting that demand for rhino horn in Vietnam has significantly dropped in the past year? In October, in collaboration with the Humane Society International, the Vietnamese CITES Management Authority released early results from a new demand reduction program, which received a fair amount of criticism about its actual impact. EIA welcomes Vietnam’s initial efforts to decrease demand, but the bloodshed on the ground in South Africa confirms that much more needs to be done.

Even if the survey results demonstrate an accurate drop in consumption, the percentage of people interviewed who would consider using rhino horn in the future applied to Vietnam’s total population is a frightening 2.3 million plus.

The fact is, rhinos are still dying in ever-increasing numbers because their poached horns are still smuggled into and purchased in large quantities in Vietnam and China.

Unless countries like Vietnam and China enact and enforce complete bans on domestic rhino horn trade and enact comprehensive measures to implement said bans, it is unlikely that Vietnam or China will effect a significant reduction in demand for poached rhino horn. Rhino horn has become an investment commodity and demand appears to be increasing due to the high prices they fetch.

In addition to implementing a demand reduction campaign, the Vietnamese government should be increasing their controls and penalties affecting traffickers, retailers, and buyers. More seizures have been made, but there needs to be more arrests, prosecutions, and prison sentences at all levels of the chain. While on paper Vietnam looks to have made progress, such as with its new directive “on strengthening the direction and implementation of measures for controlling and protecting endangered, rare and precious wild animals,” the reality is that little concrete action has been taken to stop the illegal trade and prosecute its criminal perpetrators.

EIA reiterates its call for trade sanctions to be enacted on Vietnam for its failure to effectively implement CITES controls on rhino horn trade. We therefore encourage the United States to continue to review the Pelly petition and carefully consider what Vietnam has actually implemented and accomplished since its submission, by taking a hard look at what’s on paper versus what action and enforcement is really occurring.