/ 14 November 2008

Vietnam embassy in rhino row

Investigators say conservation officials lack the capacity to check if the right rhino has been shot.

A Vietnamese embassy staff member has allegedly been caught red-handed on film in an illegal rhinoceros horn transaction in front of the embassy building in Pretoria.

The footage was captured by the SABC’s nature investigations programme, 50/50, two months ago at a time when conservationists fear that the rhino wars of the Eighties are flaring up again.

This year alone more than 40 rhinos have been killed in South Africa, with about 30 of them thought to have been poached in the Kruger Park and 12 in KwaZulu-Natal parks.

In addition, conservationists have accused Zimbabwean and Mozambican conservation authorities of doing too little to stem a new wave of organised poaching, while warning that poaching activities could soon erupt in a ”free for all”. Under international law it is illegal to trade rhino horn products and in South Africa it is an offence, carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail and a R250 000 fine.

Most fingers point to Vietnamese syndicates, which have sought to monopolise the rhino horn trade in recent years.

A member of a special government investigating team told the Mail & Guardian this week that staff of the Vietnamese embassy were thought to be involved in rhino horn trafficking and were using diplomatic pouches to smuggle the horns to the Far East.

The 50/50 footage — to be aired on Monday night — shows a woman thought to be the embassy receptionist talking to a known agent of a rhino horn smuggling syndicate, who hands her a horn. Smiling, she then heads into the embassy.

50/50 tried to get comment from the embassy for two months, without success. The embassy declined to comment to the M&G, but requested a meeting with the paper next week where it promised to respond to the allegations.

Last year the Vietnamese daily, Thahn Nien, reported that South African police had complained to the embassy that one of its officials was conveying rhino horns out of South Africa. Vietnamese authorities allegedly took action against the official, but he was not charged here.

In June another Vietnamese national was reportedly arrested in Vietnam for smuggling five horns, worth R2-million.

An explosive report about horn smuggling, written by a member of the government task team, also alleged that Far East embassies in neighbouring Mozambique may be involved in the smuggling.

The investigator, who asked not to be named, said 55 rhinos have been killed on the border of the Kruger Park in Mozambique, 18 in the past nine months. This and other forms of poaching posed a threat to the South Africa-Mozambican trans-frontier park.

”It is definitely escalating,” he said, adding that South African investigators had caught many offenders, but that Mozambican law enforcers let them down at the last moment.

The 18 horns poached this year have not surfaced yet, leading investigators to believe that they have found their way out of Mozambique.

”The Mozambican anti-poaching legal network is quite weak,” he said. ”In most cases nothing has happened.”

The investigator was unhappy that South African authorities were reluctant to get involved because they feared jeopardising bilateral relationships. He said that unlike their predecessors in the Eighties, the new Southern African horn syndicates were sophisticated and well organised and the syndicate bosses rarely got their hands dirty.

Prices range between R12 000 and R20 000 per kilogram for a horn, but in reselling it, syndicates can make up to R100 000 per kilogram. Prices of horns have skyrocketed in recent years.

International law allows hunters to shoot rhinos legally as trophies. But because rhino hunts are so expensive, it is cheaper to use hunting licences to smuggle poached horns than to shoot the animals.

Investigators say conservation officials lack the capacity to check if the right rhino has been shot.

In June South Africa’s environment minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, announced a moratorium on all trade in horns, to counter the smuggling upsurge.

Van Schalkwyk told Parliament: ”This indiscriminate illegal trade in rhino is directly linked to organised crime and the fact that approximately 27 white rhino were poached in the Kruger National Park during the past two years, as well as a definite increase in incidents in other parts of the country.”

Internationally the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) also established a rhinoceros enforcement task force in July to combat poaching. In Asia poaching poses an even more direct threat to the species.

South African National Parks is conducting a sensitive investigation into poaching in its parks. SANParks head of communications Wanda Mkutshulwa confirmed the increase in rhino poaching.

”We’re working hard to stem the tide, as even one rhino poached is one too many,” she said. ”Our investigators are confident they will be able to come up with good results before long.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund rhino horn is a valuable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine — despite the absence of scientific evidence of its curative properties. Contrary to popular belief, it is not used as an aphrodisiac.

Considered a powerful heat-reducing remedy, horn is used to treat fever, delirium, high blood pressure and other ailments.