Wildlife Trafficking in Vietnam Still Driven by Myths

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On July 28, police in the southern province of Tay Ninh announced they had detained three Vietnamese men for smuggling rhino horn, local media reported.

The group was allegedly driving from Tay Ninh's Moc Bai Border Gate to Ho Chi Minh City early on July 23 when police stopped their car and discovered 10 pieces of rhino horn weighing about five kilograms (11 pounds) in total.

On July 8, local media also reported that police in the Vietnamese central province of Thanh Hoa seized nearly three tonnes of ivory hidden among boxes of fruit on the back of a truck being driven to Hanoi.

wildlife animalsImage source: doanhnghiepvn.vn

The police said it was the largest seizure of smuggled ivory ever to occur in Thanh Hoa province.

News like these appear quite frequently in Vietnamese newspapers and on news websites, despite campaigns launched by local authorities and international NGOs focusing on cracking down on wildlife traffickers and raising awareness about wildlife trade and consumption.

Wildlife Consumption

I remembered the first time I visited the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak in 2006, when I saw elephants in a village. When I got back to Buon Ma Thuot, some locals asked me if I would like to buy rings made from elephant tail hair to bring me good luck and good health.

They assured me that the rings were made from “real hair” taken from village elephants. Of course I did not buy any. Why is elephant tail hair a lucky charm? It sounded like a myth. And imagine how the elephants felt when their thick hairs were plucked from their tails.

wildlife animalsImage source: news.zing.vn

According to local authorities, traffickers usually cut off the tails of wild elephants to take the hairs.

Ten years later, elephant hair rings are still sold. A Tuoi Tre survey in 2016 found that domesticated elephants in Dak Lak, home to Vietnam’s largest population of animals, were being threatened by the practice.

The survey stated that more than 10 elephants were serving tourists at a local attraction, and all of them had tail hairs plucked.

As elephants use their tails to chase away insects, they cannot do so as effectively with a hairless tail. Just think about how difficult it is for an injured elephant to protect its open wounds from insects.

Central Highlands researchers said that the belief that elephant tail hair brings good luck is inspired by a story made up by those who wanted to profit elephant-tail-hair merchandise.

And it’s not just elephant hair: elephant tusks, rhino horns, bear bile, pangolins, tiger claws, tiger bone, tiger meat and other endangered animal products have fallen prey to people’s blind beliefs.

The Edge of Extinction

Vietnam outlawed the ivory trade in 1992, but the country remains a top market for ivory products used for decorative purposes or in traditional medicine, despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting their supposed health benefits.

Video source: Huy The

Tusk powder is said to have detoxifying properties, giving skin a luminous glow when consumed, and other healing properties.

According to conservation group Save the Elephants, Vietnam is one of the world’s biggest illegal ivory markets, which is especially popular among Chinese buyers. The group announced that in the past eight years the number of ivory items in Vietnam for sale has increased more than six times.

The Ministry of Forestry said Vietnam’s elephant population has shrunk from 1,500 to 2,000 in 1975 to 1980 to just 70 to 130 in 2015.

The Vietnamese NGO Education for Nature-Vietnam estimated that between 2006 and September 2016, the organisation investigated 971 cases of trading, transporting, selling and advertising of tigers or tiger products. They helped rescue 14 live tigers and confiscated 69 dead tigers.

Tiger bones, meat, skin and claws are used in Vietnam to make traditional medicine or for decorative purposes.

Tiger parts are purported to heal the liver and kidneys, to cure everything from epilepsy, baldness, toothaches, joint pain and boils to ulcers, nightmares, fevers and headaches. Tiger penis is said to have aphrodisiac powers. None of these theories have been proven by scientists.

wildlife animalsImage source: doisongphapluat.vn

Vietnam currently has five tigers in the wild, a sharp decline from 30 in 2011, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) statistics published in 2016.

Meanwhile, rhino horns are considered a status symbol and are used for decorations and in medicine. Vietnam developed an appetite for rhino horn about a decade ago under the belief it could cure cancer, a myth conservation groups have bristled at.

The country’s last Javan rhino, a rare Southeast Asian species, was found dead in 2010 with its horn hacked off.

Animal conservationists say rhinos are being poached in Africa every day to meet demand, which comes mostly from China and Vietnam.

Wildlife Conservation Society Vietnam found that 90 percent of Vietnamese Facebook users talking about wildlife products are aged between 18 to 34 years old; more than 80 percent are male; and the most commonly discussed products were elephant tail hair, ivory rings and tiger claws.

What Can Be Done?

Although Vietnam has strict laws against the sale and purchase of endangered animals, the weak enforcement has allowed a black market to flourish.

So, if the government is determined enough to curb wildlife trafficking, things must change.

There was actually some improvement over the last few years: the wildlife trafficking cases busted by Vietnamese authorities dropped from 459 in 2014 to 295 in 2015 and 256 in 2016, according to the Forest Protection Department.

wildlife animalsImage source: baomoi.com

The Wildlife Conservation Society Vietnam has also identified a sharp decrease in online "buzz" relating to wildlife products in July 2016, which coincided with the widely-publicized trial and conviction of online wildlife trader Phan Huynh Anh Khoa, who was sentenced to five years in prison for trafficking various wild animals.

If more wildlife traffickers like him are punished, hopefully others will reconsider going to the forest to hunt elephant tails.

I think more awareness-raising campaigns should be held so that Vietnamese people will discover the truth about wildlife products and stop using them.

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