The visit coincided with World Rhino Day, held on September 22 this year.
According to TRAFFIC, from 1990 to 2007, South Africa lost an average of 13 rhinos to poaching each year, but in 2008, the number shot up to 72 animals being killed for their horns. This figure rose to 122 in 2009, and again in 2010 to an unprecedented 333 dead.
As of September this year, more than 302 animals have already been illegally killed. At this rate, the total number may be pushed to over 400 dead rhinos in 2011 if the poaching onslaught is not halted.
Rhino horns are usually smuggled to Asia, and there is strong evidence that Vietnam is one of the key destinations and also a primary driver of the illicit trade.
Last month, two Vietnamese citizens were sentenced by a South African magistrate to 8 and 12 years in prison respectively, for attempting to smuggle rhino horn out of the country.
In addition to poaching of live animals in Africa, the demand from Asia has led to a spate of thefts of antique rhino horn from museums and zoos across Europe by organized criminal gangs.
Rhino horn is used in traditional Asian medicine for the treatment of high fever, but a new belief has emerged claiming rhino horn has curative powers against cancer – a notion that may have developed in Vietnam.
However, there is no scientific or medical evidence to support any such claims. Rhino horn is similar in composition and structure to horses’ hooves, birds’ beaks, and human fingernails.
At a joint press conference on Wednesday, Mr. Fundisile Mketeni, Deputy Director General of Biodiversity and Conservation in the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, and Dr. Ha Cong Tuan, Deputy Director General, Viet Nam Forestry Administration, announced the signing of a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) under which both countries can actively collaborate to stop the illegal trade in rhino horn.
“In order to combat the illegal trade in wildlife products effectively, law enforcement must address the entire black market trade chain, from source country to end users,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC global elephant and rhino programme coordinator.
“Formal institutional links between South African and Vietnamese law enforcement agencies should create effective channels of communication and improve law enforcement in both countries. It is important to note, however, that a meeting like this is only a first step. The real challenge is for participants to demonstrate their commitment in the follow-through once they return to their respective posts,” he said.
Last week’s visit of Vietnamese government officials to South Africa follows the October 2010 mission of a five-member South African delegation to Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City to discuss rhino horn trafficking between the two countries.