In the global matrix of illegal wildlife trafficking, Vietnam is a critical node. According to the United Kingdom nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, Vietnam “is the primary destination for illegal wildlife products sourced from across Africa and shipped by criminal networks directly or indirectly to meet the demand in Vietnam and beyond.” Vietnamese nationals reportedly have established wildlife trafficking networks in cooperation with providers in Africa and Central Europe, and the illegal wildlife trade has been incorporated into Vietnamese criminal activities in Central Europe.
Until fairly recently, the Vietnamese government’s response to wildlife crime was anemic at best. Since 2010, Vietnamese authorities made at least 120 wildlife seizures at air and seaports involving elephant, pangolin and rhino horn, and at least 51 percent of those shipments “originated from Africa and a significant number were high volume.” Yet of the large-scale seizures at seaports since 2018, none resulted in arrests or convictions.
To its credit, Vietnam has lately been taking significant steps to combat wildlife crime. These include revising its penal code in 2018 to establish significantly increased penalties for such crime, substantially increasing the number of wildlife trafficking seizures, and successfully prosecuting major wildlife traffickers.
On December 8, a Vietnamese court sentenced a rhino horn trader, Do Minh Toan, to 14 years’ imprisonment – the longest sentence that a Vietnamese court has meted out for wildlife crime. The case began in 2019, when Vietnamese customs officials at Noi Bai international airport in Hanoi discovered 55 pieces of rhino horn, weighing approximately 275 pounds, “in a carefully disguised shipment. The pieces were encased in plaster and police used rods to break the casts apart.”
Although this prosecution is only one relatively small contribution to international efforts to stem the tide of rhino poaching, it provides a further indication of Vietnam’s commitment to combating wildlife crime. It should also remind other countries with poor records on animal protection that taking similar measures is not merely desirable as a way of improving their reputations in the international community, but necessary to implement their obligations under longstanding international conventions such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.