High profile pressures Vietnam to tackle its role as a leading wildlife crime hotspot

VIETNAM has swiftly emerged as one of the world’s leading hotspots for illegal wildlife trade, implicated in hundreds of seizures in recent years for wildlife contraband such as elephant ivory, tiger skins and bones, rhino horn and pangolins.

But now the country is in pole position to do something about it – for the duration of January it is president of the UN Security Council and has also taken over the presidency of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), an influential intergovernmental organisation comprising 10 countries in the region, for 2020.

Our report Running Out of Time, published ahead of a major meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) last year, warned that despite the rapid explosion of Vietnamese criminal networks driving illegal wildlife trade around the world, the response from the country’s Government has been hopelessly inadequate.

In fact, Vietnam has become the focus of growing concern about widespread wildlife trafficking from its ASEAN neighbours.

Shruti Suresh, our Senior Wildlife Campaigner, said: “Its leadership role in ASEAN is particularly significant because wildlife trafficking is enabled by porous borders between Vietnam and fellow ASEAN member states Laos and Cambodia.

“Indeed, in March 2019, recognising that “illegal  trade  in  wildlife  remains  an  ever-present  ASEAN issue”, ASEAN Ministers adopted a statement committing members to implement a number of actions to boost efforts to tackle illegal wildlife trade.

“In fairness to Vietnam,  the country hasn’t been sitting idle and doing nothing to address such serious crimes, but the response so far from the Government has been both inadequate and disproportionate to the massive and widespread scale of wildlife trafficking implicating the country. In fact, the situation is worsening with the proliferation of Vietnamese-led wildlife trafficking networks in Africa.”

Although Vietnam Customs has publicised large-scale seizures of ivory and pangolins in the country, seizures without any meaningful follow-up action have little deterrent effect on the operations of Vietnamese wildlife trafficking networks; to them, seizures are a mere business ‘loss’ easily recouped with the next shipment.

Underlining the relative impunity with which wildlife criminals operate in Vietnam, there have been no convictions of those implicated in any of the large-scale seizures made by Vietnam Customs at ports of entry.

Moreover, seizures are the tip of the iceberg – large quantities of illegal wildlife products enter or leave Vietnam undetected, while some products such as powdered rhino horn and tiger bone glue are also consumed in-country.

Wildlife criminals operating from Nghe An Province, in particular, do so with little fear of reprisals – it is a well-known hub for criminals raising tigers in their backyards to be slaughtered for Chinese and Vietnamese buyers on request.

Suresh added: “While we welcome progress made by the Vietnamese police resulting in arrests and/or prosecutions in some cases, such efforts need to be ramped up significantly, not only within Vietnam but also abroad.

“In 2018, our report Exposing the Hydra revealed the organised nature and deadly impact of the operations of an organised Vietnamese wildlife trafficking network working in several countries in Africa and Asia. To the best of our knowledge, none of the individuals highlighted in the report have been arrested and are very likely still active.

“With the world facing a serious biodiversity crisis, there is no time to waste. Vietnam has the required infrastructure and capacity in place to turn the tide against wildlife crime – and we strongly urge it to make 2020 the year when the country translates its many paper commitments into concrete action.”