Killing Fields: Africa's Rhinos Under Threat

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

Investigators dig for bullets inside a poached rhino as the manager of a South African game reserve covers his face in disgust

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When alarmed South African wildlife officials visited Hanoi last October to discuss Vietnam's role in the rhino-horn trade, they were told that the country was mainly a transit route for voracious Chinese consumers. (This was better than the outcome of a previous trip, when a high-ranking Vietnamese Forestry Ministry official walked out of a meeting with international wildlife monitors.) But Vietnam is clearly an end destination for animal parts, not merely a way station. Even as the South Africans were meeting with their Vietnamese counterparts, Hanoi abounded with rhino-horn paraphernalia not openly available in other countries. "Vietnam has stopped some people trying to smuggle in rhino horn at various border checkpoints, but otherwise I've seen nothing indicating a crackdown on the trade," says Tom Milliken, East/ Southern Africa director for the wildlife-trade-monitoring network Traffic. "In all my years of monitoring rhino horn, I've never seen entire local industries catering to the consumption of horn like I have seen in Vietnam."

No kidding. In a factory on the outskirts of Hanoi, the Thien Duc company churns out unusual wares: machines used to hold and pulverize chunks of rhino horn by rubbing them against dishes with rough interiors. The electronic grinders and ceramic bowls are sold at a downtown badminton shop. The store's owner, Thanh (he wouldn't give his full name), sells a machine or two every week along with around 10 of the specialized dishes. His customers, he says, are often communist bureaucrats who aren't sick but need something to revive them after long nights at state-funded banquets. "It's a good gift to give government officials," he tells TIME. "It's really fashionable now." Sure enough, a car with official plates pulls up in front of the store.

That the Vietnamese agreed to meet the South African delegation last year signals that they acknowledge the problem. Nevertheless, more Vietnamese have been caught in South Africa trying to take rhino horn out of the country than have been detained back home. Just before the soccer World Cup last year, three Vietnamese were arrested at the Johannesburg airport with 24 pieces of rhino horn. Even more alarming, the Vietnamese government has been implicated in the illicit trade. An economic attaché from the Vietnamese embassy in Pretoria was twice nabbed with rhino horn but invoked diplomatic immunity. In 2008 a South African investigative TV show secretly filmed another Vietnamese diplomat buying rhino horn on the steps of the embassy, then casually walking back inside. She was recalled home.

Vietnamese in South Africa have also abused a loophole in restrictions on the rhino trade. Under CITES regulations, a limited number of rhino hunts are allowed each year, mostly at private game ranches. Some of the money raised by these licensed hunts is meant to fund conservation efforts, but the horns themselves are not supposed to be used for medicine. If they apply for another permit, hunters are allowed to take home trophy horns that have microchips inserted in them for tracking. But in reality, there is little oversight of the trade, leading criminals to pose as big-game hunters for access to horn.

In 2003, for the first time ever, CITES permits were issued to purported Vietnamese hunters, who legally exported nine trophies. In the first nine months of 2010, the number of Vietnamese trophy-permit applications had reached 107 — this from a country with little tradition of sport hunting. (Over the past few years, there has also been a sharp rise in Chinese rhino-trophy applications.) Some of the so-called hunters from Vietnam were so inexperienced, they had to be taught how to shoot a gun, according to South African court testimony. Others, say police, simply had their local guides dispatch the rhinos for them, which is illegal. So far, a handful of Vietnamese have been arrested in South Africa for taking advantage of trophy hunts. But earlier this year, a South African hunter who killed a rhino for a Vietnamese client was fined a mere $4,300.

By 2008, suspicious South African officials began limiting each hunter to just one rhino kill per year. Rhino poaching increased almost immediately, as did the number of Vietnamese applying for trophy-hunting permits. Vietnamese keep getting arrested trying to smuggle horns out of South Africa. In January a Vietnamese man and woman were detained at the Pretoria airport trying to sneak out four unlicensed horns from animals they shot during a trophy hunt just days earlier.

Asian criminals can't succeed without the help of private game ranchers. In September, a South African court will try a landmark case against two private-game-park operators, two veterinarians, a professional hunter and six others, who are accused of running a rhino-horn syndicate that bought surplus animals from the South African wildlife service and then secretly slaughtered them for their horns.

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