Vietnam is the world’s worst for wildlife crime. It’s the place where yuppies snort rhino horn like it’s cocaine, and the country’s mob bosses have turned it into a clearinghouse for illegal animal parts. But it’s not just the mob funneling wildlife parts through the country and on to the massive Chinese market. In Vietnam, giving gifts of illicit animal goods is the new way to grease palms.
From a good report in Vietweek:
Several lawmakers have told Vietweek that government bureaucrats are huge consumers of rare wildlife.
Rich businessmen often use such products – prized for their unproven medicinal properties – to flaunt their wealth and cement good ties with government authorities, one outspoken lawmaker said.
“Nowadays, bribes for officials are disguised in the forms of not only gifts, luxury vacations and cars, but also rhino horns, bear bile, or tiger bone paste,” said Le Nhu Tien, vice chairman of the National Assembly’s Committee on Culture, Education, Youth, and Children.
The fact that high-ranking officials are major consumers of wildlife parts isn’t exactly a revelation. As the Vietweek report notes, the director of the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Industry got a suspended 36-month sentence in 2003 for killing a pair of endangered gaurs on a reserve. That apparently got environmentalists’ hopes up; If one politician got publicly busted, maybe some more would give up their bear bile. But that, of course, hasn’t happened.
Vietnam is one of the least environmentally-regulated countries in Southeast Asia. Only 6.2 percent of the country, which is heavily deforested and population-dense, is protected land despite being a biodiversity hotspot. (The same World Bank table says the U.S. has dedicate double the proportion of its total land to conservation, or much, much more in total area.) And what regulations that do exist are continually flaunted by officials. For example, in neighboring Laos the Vietnamese military is helping corporations smuggle illegal hardwoods.
What’s the solution? Well, shining a light on the problem obviously helps. Politicians are nothing if not addicted to appearances, and being publicly shamed helps change behavior. But laws are made to be broken, and until tiger bone paste, rhino horn, and other ridiculously-pointless and wasteful “luxuries” go out of fashion, they’ll still be used to buy favors.