Ivory trade could make Vietnam’s elephants extinct within a decade
mercredi 22 septembre 2010
The Guardian 21 September 2010
Huong’s dank shop provides some brief respite from the waves of horn-blaring luxury SUVs bullying pedestrians on the pavements of Hanoi. But more crucially, it offers a final resting place, of sorts, for some of Vietnam’s wild elephants.
Huong is the beaming owner of Artcen Company, an "import-export" outfit specialising in crafted ivory products. And, like those of the SUV-driving government officials cashing in on foreign investor paranoia about missing out on "the next little China" – Artcen’s coffers are swelling.
"A few years ago, our customers were all Japanese, Chinese and Korean. But we get rich fast now too, and rich people always want to show what they have," says Huong, indicating a fashion that is likely to further endanger the slow-reproducing mammal.
The wild elephant population has plummeted from more than 2,000 in the mid-90s to between 72-80 animals at liberty today, according to Vietnam’s ministry of natural resources and environment. A large number of them have succumbed to illegal logging, agricultural encroachment and landmines left over from what Vietnamese call "the American war".
However, it is clear that over the last decade, most of Vietnam’s wild herd has fallen victim to the rifle. Increased poaching in one of south-east Asia’s fastest-growing economies has ignited fears that the once-revered animal will disappear from the jungles within a generation if conservation efforts are not stepped up soon.
"Most of our small pieces are locally sourced," admits Huong as she hands me crudely made Buddha and Jesus icons to inspect. "Our prices are already too high, so we don’t want to pay off more customs to bring it in from Laos or Cambodia."
Her comments underscore another dark layer in Vietnam’s march to economic development. The country has quickly shifted from a transit point in the wildlife trade to a major end-consumer, now rivalling the richer Asian markets of Taiwan, South Korea, China and Japan.
Conservation group Traffic estimates that 4,000 tonnes of illegal wildlife products pass through Vietnam every year. Surging consumer demand means poaching is also spreading to forests in neighbouring Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma.
"It’s also moving into new technology," says wildlife conservationist Duac Fegot. "We’re starting to see more avenues for trade in endangered wildlife in Vietnam emerge on the internet."
"The situation is becoming very critical and serious," says Huynh Tien Dung, World Wildlife Fund Vietnam’s national policy co-ordinator. "If the right efforts are spent, it is possible to bring the wild elephants back from the brink. If international donors give more priority to elephants, we are sure that it will help."
Blaming the lack of donor funding may seem disingenuous given the amount of aid pouring into Vietnam for environmental programmes and strategies. Yet the real problem could well be that wildlife protection laws in Vietnam are toothless.
Hanoi officially banned ivory sales in 1992 when it ratified the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But a loophole was left, allowing for ivory traders to sell stock purchased before the treaty was ratified. Analysts say the loophole is a veiled nod to the continuation of poaching and smuggling.
"These pieces we have on display are all new and would be even more expensive if they dated to before 1992," says Huong. "But we still say they’re from before then."
To the ongoing irritation of conservationists, traders and their inventories are never monitored. "The two things that are causing the problems are : weak law enforcement and low awareness of the poor communities on protection of wild elephants," Huynh says.
However, according to conservationists, the cost of street-level ivory – Traffic says tusks are selling for up to $1,500 a kg and cut pieces for up to $1,863 a kg – have encouraged law enforcement agents to seize consignments rather than attempt to halt poaching in the first place. Authorities recently seized 30 elephant tusks and 15 elephant tusk segments that were being transported to the northern province of Móng Cái on the Chinese border. And last year, a container of tusks shipped from Tanzania to Vietnam – its contents worth millions of dollars – was "confiscated" by the government. But no charges have been brought and the whereabouts of the ivory is unknown.
Nevertheless, the ministry of environment says it is trying to crack down on traders such as Huong, and claim a "master plan" is in the offing. It remains to be seen if this measure will prevent the extinction of the Asian elephant in the wild.
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