TAIPEI, Taiwan, and HANOI, Vietnam — What's a Vietnamese gangster to do when the last indigenous rhino has been shot?
With no more product to fuel a lucrative rhino-horn market — driven by cash-rich partygoers, who mix it with booze, and terminal cancer patients banking on a miracle cure — they'd have to venture further afield.
First stop, according to UK-based wildlife monitor TRAFFIC, is South Africa, where they'd encounter rhinos on state-licensed safaris.
When South African authorities became suspicious of a surge in Vietnamese ‘pseudo-hunters,’ gangsters changed gears by sending other Asian nationalities — including Thai hookers — to get the job done.
“When regulations limited the number of hunters, one of the gangs started using sex workers for additional names to put on permits. But of course they didn’t know how to shoot, so there were cases when the professionals taking them out would actually do the shooting for them,” TRAFFIC spokesman Richard Thomas told GlobalPost.
That, and more, is part of a recent report released by the London-based wildlife monitoring group, that found Vietnamese gangsters are behind a surge in rhino poachings with methods that have included: recruiting Vietnamese diplomats to purchase and transport horns in diplomatic pouches and a string of break-ins of US, European and African museums, where stuffed rhinos have had their horns removed.
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"The surge in demand from Vietnam has nothing to do with meeting traditional medicine needs, it's to supply a recreational drug to partygoers or to con dying cancer patients out of their cash for a miracle rhino horn cure that will never happen," said Tom Milliken, a rhino expert with TRAFFIC and co-author of the report.
Vietnam’s new-rich believe that grinding up rhino horn and mixing it with water or alcohol is a cure-all tonic that signifies status and wealth within the Southeast Asian nation’s party set. It’s also touted as a cure for cancer, and cynical brokers scour the country’s hospital wards in search of the desperate and dying.
In a dank corner of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a warren of alleys made up of lemon and ochre French colonials, Huong provides a final resting place, of sorts, for African rhinos from a continent away.
Huong, who would only give her first name, runs an "import-export" company specializing in imitation ivory products. But for the right price, real ivory, rhino horn and other banned wildlife are also available.
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"Our customers used to be from other Asian countries. But that’s changed as the economy has improved over the past decade. The Vietnamese are eager to show their friends how rich they are. But rhino [horn] makes less sense to me than ivory, which is beautiful and fashioned into useable products,” said Huong.
“An aspirin would do the same job as ground up horn, but people want it even more than ivory. It’s one way to say, ‘hey, I’m so rich, I can spend all this money on a drink.’"
Her comments underscore yet another dark shadow in the country’s race to develop, and a shift from a transit point in the wildlife trade to a major end-consumer.
TRAFFIC estimates there were 13 rhinos poached in South Africa in 2007. This year is on pace for 515, and the conservation group puts the blame squarely at the feet of Vietnamese gangsters. Arrests are also up, with Vietnamese nationals having the dubious distinction of accounting for 58 percent of all Asians picked up by South African authorities in rhino horn trade crackdowns this year.
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It also estimates 4,400 tons of illegal wildlife products pass through the country annually, while growing domestic demand is also increasing pressure on neighboring wildlife habitats in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.
"There is a real problem with the lack of enforcement in Vietnam," said Huynh Tien Dung, a policy coordinator at World Wildlife Fund’s Hanoi office. "More has to be done to ensure not only our own endangered species like the tiger and elephant are protected from poachers, but the trade of other wildlife from Asia and Africa is also actively investigated and prosecuted."
Critics say that Vietnam, which has been awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and funding by donors for conservation programs, is home to loose wildlife protection laws that serve up scant deterrents for poachers and smugglers.
"The fact that the Vietnamese government has not played a greater role is problematic. The only people benefiting from the rhino poaching crisis are those running the criminal networks. This trade leaves a trail of carnage and hapless victims — both animal and human — from source to end-use market, wrote Milliken in the report.
But whether those warnings will be received by authorities in Hanoi remains to be seen. Its own indigenous Java rhino population came to an abrupt end when the last of the species was shot in Cat Tien National Park and had its horn removed in 2010. Cat Tien was supposed to be a rhino sanctuary — one that was awarded millions of dollars in funding to protect the species. To date, nobody has been charged with the crime.
There are thought to be fewer than 50 individuals remaining on the Indonesian island of Java.
A reporter in Hanoi contributed to this report.