A White Rhino and her calf walk in the dusk light in Pilanesberg National Park

Sheree Bega

Only concrete action from Vietnam will show if it recognises the true extent of its role in the illicit rhino horn trade ravaging rhino populations in South Africa.

Naomi Doak, co-ordinator of wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic’s Southeast Asia-Greater Mekong Programme, was reacting to the long-delayed memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between South Africa and Vietnam this week to promote biodiversity conservation and protection.

“The signing of the MoU and, more importantly, the statements made by the Minister from Vietnam are the first public step and statement made in regards to recognising the role Vietnam plays… Only time and concrete action will show if Vietnam is recognising the extent of its role in the rhino horn trade and poaching levels… whether both countries are committed to the steps included in the document.”

With more than 618 rhino dead this year, the agreement couldn’t have come at a more crucial time – rhino killings have almost doubled since last year.

The next step is for South Africa to sign a similar agreement with China, and Thailand but Doak said she “was not sure if they are even in talks on this issue”.

Vietnam’s Minister of Agricultural and Rural Development of Vietnam, Dr Cao Duc Phat, who put his signature to the agreement with the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, stated his country was concerned by the trade in “rare, precious and endangered species, including the rhino”.

In Vietnam, rhino horn is touted as a cancer cure and fever remedy, hangover reliever and detoxifier.

Doak said it would now be “key to see some strong, dedicated actions in regards to enforcement, detection and demand reduction” from Vietnam.

“One key issue that could be tackled immediately by Vietnam is to look at the legal framework and put in place the necessary regulations to allow for seizure and prosecution of people selling fake horn, the sale of which only fuels demand and the growing market.”

The MoU did not specifically deal with rhino poaching. Doak explained why: “The agreement is likely to be focused on wildlife trafficking in general terms as it recognises that the focus and attention may shift from rhinos to other species and in the future there may be a need to look at actions on other species.”

Since 2010, Traffic has provided the funds and logistical support to bilateral visits between officials.

“These visits have been strongly advocating for increased co-operation, collaboration and communication between authorities in both countries in line with the signing of the MoU.”

Last September Vietnam and South Africa agreed on a process towards the finalisation of the MoU, but it has been criticised for delays.

“Unfortunately a number of the delays reported in the media were presented as ‘snubs’ or refusals related to delays in signing the agreement. Actually there were issues from both sides in terms of timing and finding an appropriate time for both ministers to be available,” Doak pointed out.