A comprehensive new TRAFFIC report into the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa documents how poor compliance over rhino horn stockpile management, loopholes in sport hunting policy, and surging demand for horn in Viet Nam created ideal conditions for the involvement of sophisticated criminal networks, leading to a dramatic escalation in poaching in southern Africa.
According to the 176-page study, The South Africa—Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates, as early as 2003, visitors from Viet Nam were regularly taking part in ‘pseudo hunts for White Rhino trophies in South Africa, interested not in the hunt itself but only in the horn; some of those participating in the hunting reportedly did not even know how to shoot a gun. Although South Africa soon enacted a range of regulations to stamp out “pseudo hunting”, in response resourceful horn traders began recruiting others, including Thai sex-workers as ‘hunters’, to circumvent the new rules.
In 2009, the government of South Africa placed a moratorium on national sales of rhino horns to prevent unregistered stocks, so-called ‘loose horns’, from leaking into trade—all international commercial trade in rhino products is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Law-breaking wildlife industry individuals have since been convicted, with harsh prison sentences handed out for illegally dehorning live rhinos and the subsequent sale of the horns to Asian buyers. In April 2012, South Africa suspended the issuance of hunting licences to all Vietnamese nationals while also introducing other changes to tighten the loopholes allowing ‘pseudo hunts’.
South Africa has witnessed a rising spiral of organized, violent rhino-related criminal activity, with hard-pressed authorities hitting back with increased enforcement efforts. In early 2012, almost two rhinos were being poached every day. By 17th July this year, the total stood at 281 rhinos, with a predicted loss of 515 by year end if current poaching rates continue. By 17th July this year, there had been more arrests (176) in South Africa for rhino-related crime than in all of 2010 (165), with middlemen and those higher up the trade chain increasingly being collared, including a number of high-level arrests of Vietnamese nationals since May 2012.Rhino crime syndicates in South Africa have been linked to other criminal activities such as drug and diamond smuggling, human trafficking and illegal trade in other wildlife products such as elephant ivory and abalone. Of 43 documented arrests of Asian nationals for rhino crimes in South Africa, 24 have been Vietnamese (56%) and 13 Chinese (28%), with the remainder from Thailand and Malaysia.
At the other end of the illicit trade chain, the report identifies Viet Nam as the main market, where demand for rhino horn continues to rise and serrated rhino horn grinding bowls are widely available for sale. “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. “Ultimately the only long-term solution to stamping out rhino poaching in Africa and Asia lies in curbing demand for horn. The fact that the Vietnamese Government has not played a greater role in ensuring such an outcome is problematic, but presents an opportunity for decisive action beginning now.”