Environmentalists turn spotlight on Vietnamese wildlife trafficking hub


This handout picture obtained from the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) Investigation on November 8, 2016 11 shows 11 Rhino horns offered to WJC Investigators via WeChat in Nhi Khe, Vietnam during 2016.

THE HAGUE – Environmentalists turn the spotlight next week on a Vietnamese wildlife trafficking hub smuggling millions of dollars of endangered animal products like rhino horn, demanding Hanoi act to shut it down.

A two-day public hearing opening on Monday in The Hague will lay bare the results of a year-long investigation by the newly-established Wildlife Justice Commission.

During the dangerous undercover probe, a team of investigators found $53,1-million (R743,08m) worth of parts from rhinos, elephants and tigers being trafficked from the small Vietnamese village of Nhi Khe, south of Hanoi.

There were parts from up to 907 elephants, 579 rhinos and 225 tigers. But there were also other dead animals for sale, including pangolin, bear, hawksbill turtles and helmeted hornbills smuggled to the south-east Asian country mostly from Africa and overwhelmingly destined for customers in China.

The public hearing in front of five experts, including international judges, will also hear what the commission says is a failure by the Vietnamese government to take action.

Hanoi has carried out major seizures of illegal ivory in recent weeks, and issued directives ordering a crackdown on such trade.

But the commission, an NGO based in The Hague, says such steps are not enough.

Vietnam is "a critical part of the chain", said executive director Olivia Swaak-Goldman.

"If you can bring down the high-level traders operating in the Nhi Khe you can really have a huge impact on the global trade," she told AFP.

Earlier this year the commission handed over its evidence to Hanoi, naming 51 people operating as part of the Nhi Khe network.

"We've given them everything they need. We've told them specific dates and specific individuals who offered us a specific number of rhino horns. And they haven't taken steps," Swaak-Goldman told AFP. 

"We need to make that public, so they can no longer hide behind the fact saying that they didn't know."

The hearing will be streamed live and translated into Vietnamese. Representatives from Hanoi are expected to attend, but will not participate.

It comes just a few days before Vietnam is to host a major international conference on the illegal wildlife trade to be attended by Britain's Prince William.

Set up in March last year, the commission aims to build up solid evidence for governments and law enforcement agencies to take legal action against those trafficking illegally in wildlife.

The demand for goods such as ivory and rhino horn is huge, raking in an estimated $20-billion a year worldwide.

Although the commission has no power to take action itself, it hopes the hearing will draw up recommendations for Hanoi and the international community.

Ten other investigations around the world are also under way, although the commission does not want to publicise where they are for fear of jeopardising the probes and putting their teams at risk.

But a similar inquiry in Malaysia for example led to the arrest of 16 people.

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