South Africa has barred Vietnamese nationals who have applied to hunt rhinos in the country because it hasn’t been assured that they won’t illegally sell the animals’ horns, which are worth more than their weight in gold.
All 23 rhino hunting applications by Vietnamese residents this year were rejected, South Africa’s Minister of Environmental and Water Affairs, Edna Molewa, said in an interview yesterday. Hunters from the southeast Asian nation didn’t convince South Africa’s government that they would adhere to permit regulations, which stipulate that trophies can’t be sold, she said. The number of rhinos poached in South Africa is projected by the government to rise to a record this year.
“A majority of the people that are being arrested here, a lot of the permits that are being applied for here, come from Vietnam,” Molewa said at the Israel-sized Kruger National Park in South Africa’s northeast. There is “no clear record of proper processes that need to be followed.”
Nearly 60 percent of the rhino hunting requests since the beginning of 2010 have come from Vietnam, where rising prosperity has fostered demand for the horn, which some believe can cure ailments including cancer, according to the government. Made out of the same matter as hair, the horn fetches as much as $60,000 per kilogram.
About 90 percent, or 20,000, of the world’s rhinos are in South Africa, which is tightening regulations on hunters, asking Vietnam and China to help them clamp down on the illegal trade in horns and creating a rhino DNA database which will help link horns sold to animals killed.
With 159 rhinos already poached this year, the number of the animals that are illegally hunted may increase to 619 from an all-time high of 448 in 2011, according to the ministry. At the current rate of slaughter, rhinos in the wild face extinction by 2025 in Africa, conservationists including the African Wildlife Foundation said in a statement released in Nairobi, Kenya on April 3. Ninety people have been arrested so far this year in connection with illegal rhino hunting.
South Africa has set up a task force uniting government, national parks, police, prosecutors and private operators, and the army to stem the tide.
The Vietnamese government says it has agreed to do a count of rhino trophies brought home by its residents to check whether they still have their horns. It will also coordinate a tighter surveillance of the legal import of horns with South Africa, according to an as yet unsigned agreement between the two states.
The South African officials will interview hunters requesting a permit to ensure they have prior hunting expertise and they don’t intend to sell the trophy on, Molewa said. Trophy horns will be micro-chipped, she said.
Recent examples of fraud related to rhino hunting licenses include the arrest of a Thai man last month over allegations that he was part of a syndicate which was using Thai sex workers who had never hunted before as a front to obtain a license to hunt a rhino with the trophy then sold on commercially, Adrian Lackay, the spokesman for the South African Revenue Service, said in interview from his mobile phone today.
South Africa is giving 150 new rangers intensive paramilitary training to protect the rhinos against poachers in Kruger, where illegal hunters often gain access through holes in a fence that runs along the 400-kilometer (250-mile) border with Mozambique.
Rather than build a new fence, which would be too expensive, South Africa and Mozambique will establish a 20 kilometer buffer zone to help police the border, Molewa said.
The rangers are equipped with rifles and night vision and are deployed by helicopter to track through the bush for as long as 10 days as they try to arrest poachers.
“I feel very optimistic where we are, that we are indeed waging this war with all that we have at our disposal,” Molewa said. “We have not lost this battle. We don’t see that we are already at a decline at this point in time. We shall not give in and we will not give in.”
South Africa is not ready to appeal to members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to legalize the international trade in rhino horn, which some private ranchers say will undermine poachers by allowing rhino owners to control the trade, Molewa said.
The government won’t be able to adequately increase its monitoring of hunts, enforce trophy micro chipping and complete its DNA database by October, by when it would need to make such a submission, she said.