The memorandum of understanding – which has been under discussion between to the two countries since September last year – was due to be signed during an international biodiversity conference which ends on Friday in Hyderabad, India.
But South Africa's department of environmental affairs confirmed to the Mail & Guardian this week the signing had been called off, with spokesperson Roopa Singh claiming Vietnam's relevant government minister was "not available" to sign it.
Singh said discussions with Vietnam would continue in the hope the memorandum could be signed before the end of the year.
The news came as South Africa announced that poaching levels had reached a record high, with 455 rhinos killed since the beginning of the year, eclipsing last year's figure of 448.
Dr Jo Shaw – rhino coordinator for WWF South Africa – said "political support from the highest level in South Africa" was needed to ensure that the agreement was finally signed and that "these words are put into action via joint law enforcement".
'A new level'
For months, South Africa's department of environmental affairs pinned its hopes – some say, naively – on the memorandum with Vietnam.
In September this year, the department announced the memorandum would be signed in Hyderabad during a conference of signatories to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which the department claimed would take South Africa's efforts to crack down on the illegal trade in horn "to a new level".
But Vietnam – considered the primary consumer country for rhino horn – appears reluctant to cooperate on any level with South Africa.
In April this year environment minister Edna Molewa said her department asked Vietnam's ministry of agriculture and rural development to "conduct inspections and verify that white rhinoceros trophies exported from South Africa to Vietnam are still in the possession of the hunters".
This week, Singh said Vietnam's authorities had yet to provide South Africa with any evidence that trophies exported to Vietnam were still in the possession of the original hunters. "The Vietnamese authorities [have] indicated that they would only be able to conduct inspections late in 2012," she said.
South Africa and Swaziland are the only countries in the world where rhinos can be legally hunted for sport. "Personal" hunting trophies can also be legally exported, but only the hunter in whose name the hunting and export permits were issued can legally possess the trophy.
The first Vietnamese "sports hunters" arrived in South Africa in 2003. By 2007, Vietnamese hunters dominated a large proportion of the country's rhino hunting market. The flow of horns only stopped in early 2012 after South Africa began refusing to issue permits to Vietnamese hunters pending the outcome of Vietnam's promised inspections.
Traffic, the international wildlife monitoring network, estimated at least 400 rhinos were shot in "pseudo-hunts" conducted by Vietnamese middlemen and women. Most of the hunters appear to have been recruited by syndicates to exploit loopholes in South Africa's hunting legislation in order to obtain rhino horn for the black markets of South-east Asia.
Rhino horn is widely used in Vietnam – particularly by the wealthy – as a panacea for a range of ills including cancer and fevers. There is also growing evidence of its popularity among the nouveau riche as a hangover cure and as a status symbol.
"Nowadays, bribes for officials are disguised in the forms of not only gifts, luxury vacations and cars, but also rhino horns, bear bile, or tiger bone paste," Le Nhu Tien, vice-chairperson of a Vietnamese National Assembly committee recently told the Thanh Nien News website.
The trade in black market horns from pseudo-hunts was thrown into sharp relief earlier this month when it emerged that thieves targeted the mansion of the vice-chairperson of one of Vietnam's largest banks and stole the horns from a stuffed white rhinoceros that he kept inside.
Tram Be – who serves on the board of Sacombank – told Tuoi Tre News he received the rhino as a housewarming gift four years ago and had all the necessary paperwork and permit to prove he was its legitimate owner.
But the documentation, seen by the M&G, proves exactly the opposite.
It shows the animal was shot by a hunter from Ho Chi Minh City named Ngo Thanh Nhan. According to Singh, the trophy therefore "legally belongs to Mr Ngo Thanh Nhan, the person in whose name the Cites export permit was issued".
Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to which both South Africa and Vietnam are signatories, regulates trade in endangered and threatened species.
"In terms of Cites … the trophy should be regarded as an item for personal use [of the hunter] only," Singh said. "Any activity involving the trophy that is not directed [or] intended for personal use, can be regarded as commercial; and a commercial activity involving the trophy in the country of import is not allowed in terms of the convention. This must however, be enforced through national legislation in the importing country."
Vietnamese authorities continue to look for the thieves but have made no attempt to arrest the banker.
Be continues to deny any wrongdoing and recently showed reporters a gift card purportedly signed by Ngo Thanh Nhan. It is dated March 1 2007, five months after the 885kg stuffed rhino was shipped from South Africa to Vietnam. "Happy new home!" it reads. "I would like to present you a white rhino. I hope that this gift brings good luck to your family."
Julian Rademeyer is the author of Killing for Profit – Exposing the illegal rhino horn trade. It will be published by Zebra Press in November.