A Seabird Seeker taxies at the Skukuza Airport in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. The light observation aircraft provided by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation is equiped with highly sophisticated surveillance technology and will be used as a command platform in the fight against rhino poaching. Over 500 rhinos have already been killed in South Africa during this year alone, most of them in the Kruger National Park. 040512. Picture: Chris Collingridge 622

Cape Town - The long-awaited agreement between South Africa and Vietnam to fight rhino poaching and other environmental crimes has finally been signed.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU), negotiated over more than two years, was signed in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi on Monday by Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa and her Vietnamese counterpart, Cao Duc Phat.

International conservation group WWF described the signing as “a pivotal moment in efforts to tackle the current rhino poaching crisis”.

It comes as the number of rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa reached 618 – approaching twice as many as the 333 lost in 2009 and close to 40 percent up on last year’s figure of 448. Of the 618, 381 were killed in the Kruger National Park.

Vietnam is acknowledged as one of the major markets for poached rhino horn, and Vietnamese nationals – including diplomats – are alleged to have been involved in many poaching incidents, illegal rhino hunts and the trafficking of rhino horn in South Africa in recent years.

The signing of the agreement was postponed several times, but Molewa’s department said in response to a parliamentary question by the DA’s Gareth Morgan recently that the delays were not because of reluctance on the part of Vietnam.

“The main issue has been to secure a date for the two ministers to sign the MoU.”

Monday’s statement about the signing of the agreement was carefully worded to avoid any direct criticism of Vietnam, although it noted that it was “particularly aimed at curbing the scourge in rhino poaching”.

It said the agreement was aimed at promoting “co-operation between the two countries in the field of biodiversity management, conservation and protection; co-operation in law enforcement; and compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) and other relevant legislation and conventions on the basis of equality and mutual benefit”.

Molewa described the signing as a significant step to address the scourge of rhino poaching, saying the continued slaughter of rhinos – “South Africa’s national treasure” – was of immense concern.

“The signing of this international MoU adds to our arsenal against rhino poaching and increases the number of roleplayers working towards curbing rhino poaching,” she said. - Cape Argus