The Vietnamese connection

2011-01-22 00:00

ON a game reserve in Limpopo, a diminutive young Vietnamese woman — guided by three professional hunters — aims uncertainly down the sights of a rifle balanced on a tripod.

She squeezes off two shots in quick succession. Forty metres away, a white rhino falls.

Unsmiling, head slightly bowed, she poses for photographs next her kill, its head propped up on a rock.

The carcass is butchered and the horns are hacked off to be prepared for export to Vietnam.

The hunt was carried out legally and monitored by a Limpopo Department of Environmental Affairs official.

But there are disturbing links between legal hunting by Vietnamese nationals in South Africa and the illegal trade in rhino horn by Vietnamese criminal syndicates.

And environmentalists argue that the hunts — which peaked between 2007 and 2008 — were used to bypass the South African government’s moratorium on trade in individual rhino horns and paved the way for the dramatic upsurge in rhino poaching currently gripping South Africa.

A court case in Mokopane (Potgietersrus) this week once again cast a spotlight on the Vietnamese hunting market.

A taxidermist and professional hunter from Mossel Bay, Chris van Wyk (42), was fined R30 000 for illegally hunting a white rhino on behalf of a Vietnamese client, Nguyen Tien Hoang, in 2006.

Following his arrest, the Endangered Wildlife Trust alleged he had arranged the hunt on behalf of “a kingpin in the Vietnamese smuggling syndicate”, a claim he denies.

Van Wyk, who also has two prior convictions for the illegal trade and transportation of rhino horn and elephant tusks, is the man credited — wrongly, he says — with “creating” the Vietnamese hunting market in South Africa.

He readily admits arranging the first legal rhino hunt by a Vietnamese citizen in South Africa in 2003 and numerous others in subsequent years.

In an interview with Media24 Investigations following his sentencing on Tuesday, Van Wyk said increasingly stringent hunting regulations were to blame for the upsurge.

“I won’t say I created the market. There was always a market. It was an open market. I only filled the market. I applied for the first Vietnamese client that hunted in South Africa in Natal. It was a legal hunt.

“It is like any hunt inquiry that I get. I check to see if it is viable, if it is possible and if it is legal. If those three things are there then obviously I provide a quotation and if the client accepts it then I hunt with him,” he said.

Van Wyk said current law need’ to be reconsidered. “There is a terrible stain on guys who want to hunt legally. Because it is difficult for Vietnamese to get rhino horn through legal hunting, a much bigger illegal market is created by making it difficult for guys to do it legally.

“At one stage there were 100 rhinos being hunted by Vietnamese, now suddenly its 20. But the initial 100 remain. It is not about five years or 10 years, it does not change. There will always be demand. Poaching continues because the market remains.”

Van Wyk said the rhino poachers gave him and other hunters who tried to operate according to the law a “bad name”.

He said there are between 15 and 18 hunters in South Africa who deal with the Vietnamese.

“The rhino market is Vietnamese. I know of one professional hunter who shot 150 rhinos last year. I think at this stage I am the smallest of them all,” he said.

Van Wyk’s clients pay between R300 000 and R1,5 million to hunt a rhino.

Asked if he knew of syndicates who use legal hunting to get rhino horn into Vietnam, Van Wyk said: “I have never been overseas so I don’t know what goes on over there. All I do if the hunter comes out here is apply for a permit, regulate the hunt, prepare the trophy and ship it.”

THE link between legal hunting and the illegal trade in rhino horn was highlighted in a November 2009 report by Traffic, the international wildlife trade monitoring network.

According to the report, only 38 rhino horns originating from South Africa were declared to customs officials upon their arrival in Vietnam between 2006 and 2009. A staggering 87% of the official trade from South Africa went unreported and most horns were illegally smuggled into Vietnam, circumventing customs regulations and ensuring they were untraceable.

According to the report “investigations in South Africa have revealed disturbing evidence of organised crime”.

Faan Coetzee, head of the unit protecting rhinos at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, says criminal syndicates make use of ordinary Vietnamese, sending them on “all-expenses-paid holidays” to South Africa to hunt rhino.

“The syndicate bosses don’t hunt themselves … They send people who aren’t hunters out for a holiday of three weeks. Everything is paid for them just to come and shoot two or three rhinos. At one stage one person was shooting three animals in different provinces so that there wasn’t too much of an alert,” he said.

“The trophy is really just the horn, sometimes they take the hides, some people are also interested in the legs, some take the penises and then there are the guys that want the gall bladder, but a rhino doesn’t have a gall bladder. They grind it up for medicine.”

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