Wildlife trade hub Vietnam is also hub of impunity for traffickers, report says

  • Only one in every seven wildlife seizures made in Vietnam in the past decade has resulted in convictions, a new report by the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency has found.
  • Low numbers of arrests and prosecutions highlight problems of weak enforcement and a lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies, the researchers said.
  • Three-quarters of the shipments originated from African countries, they found, with numerous large-scale seizures indicating transnational organized crime.
  • With pandemic-related restrictions easing, the worry is that the cross-border wildlife trade will come roaring back even as Vietnam struggles to follow up on investigations into past and current seizures.

Only 14% of wildlife seizures made in Vietnam in the past decade have resulted in convictions, according to a new report that highlights the weak enforcement in the country and lack of coordination between its agencies in following up on investigations.

The report, published by the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency, revealed that of at least 120 seizures of rhino horns, pangolin scales and elephant ivory made in Vietnam since 2010, only 17 cases led to convictions, or just one in every seven cases. Half of the shipments originated from African countries, underscoring Vietnam’s status as an import hub for illegal wildlife products from the continent, it added.

Although pandemic restrictions dampened trafficking activity last year, transnational wildlife crime networks continued operating, “taking advantage of the disruption and quickly adapting to global developments,” the researchers wrote.

Ivory items on sale in Vietnam, which is a major import hub for illegal wildlife products from Africa. Image courtesy of TRAFFIC.

The illegal wildlife trade is a key contributor to global biodiversity decline, reducing wild populations while fueling local extinctions.

With pandemic-related restrictions now easing, the worry is that the cross-border wildlife trade will come roaring back. After lockdown measures were lifted in South Africa, the number of rhinos lost to poaching surged by 50% in the first six months of this year compared with 2020. In Nigeria, three major seizures since January, one of which was destined for Vietnam, have netted 19 metric tons of ivory and pangolin scales.

Vietnamese wildlife crime networks have been operating in Africa for nearly two decades, with Nigeria, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) being major hotspots. Vietnam has been implicated in the trafficking of parts and products of at least 18,000 elephants, 111,000 pangolins and 976 rhinos since 2010, 75% of which originated from Africa, the report said.

Most of the rhino poaching in South Africa has been concentrated in Kruger National Park, which saw its white rhino population plummet by more than two-thirds during the past decade. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

In July, Vietnamese authorities seized 138 kilograms (304 pounds) of rhino horn, representing up to 50 rhinos, from South Africa. The seizure at the port of Da Nang was the largest consignment of rhino horn seized locally since 2015.

Such large shipments of contraband items are a red flag for transnational organized crime, but Vietnam has been slow in pursuing follow-up investigations, the researchers said. Since 2018, some 15 metric tons of ivory and 36 metric tons of pangolin scales, representing 2,200 elephants and 36,000 pangolins, have been seized at local seaports without any arrests or convictions.

“Vietnam has made many seizures, but seizures alone are no deterrent to wildlife trafficking networks for whom seizures are minor business losses, easily recouped with the next shipment,” the researchers wrote, adding that seizures are only the “tip of the iceberg” since most illegal wildlife products enter and leave the country undetected.

“The failure to investigate numerous large-scale seizures at Vietnam’s seaports is a significant gap, suggesting that law enforcement has been inadequate and that there has been a lack of close coordination among involved agencies, including Customs and Police,” they said.

Pangolin in Cambodia. Pangolins are among the most trafficked animals in the world. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
The tendency of pangolins to curl up in tight, impenetrable balls for self-defense make them particularly vulnerable to hunters. Pangolins are the most trafficked non-human mammals in the world. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

The report also highlighted the need for Vietnamese law enforcement to collaborate with authorities in source countries including Nigeria and South Africa, transit countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore, and China, a popular end market for smuggled wildlife products.

“This includes gathering and sharing intelligence with relevant countries in Africa and Asia to conduct transnational intelligence-driven investigations into seizures made at Vietnamese ports,” the researchers wrote.

In particular, “investigating financial crimes such as money laundering, bribery and tax evasion would help identify and deter senior members” of syndicates key to operations, they said, citing prosecutions of four wildlife trafficking leaders in Vietnam in the last three years that have led to their networks being dismantled.

Vietnam has stepped up efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade in recent years. Under its 2018 penal code, which increased penalties for wildlife crime, seizures rose 44%.

The country also has a National Ivory and Rhino Action Plan, under which it has committed to exchanging information on seizures with source countries — though cooperation has so far been limited, the report noted.

Banner image of a pangolin at a rescue center in Cambodia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

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