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  • Carolyn Lê

Confronting Vietnam's Wildlife Black Market

On December 30, 2016 China announced it vows to ban all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017. China’s illegal poaching and wildlife trade ranks the highest in the world, according to Daan P. van Uhm', author of The Illegal Wildlife Trade (Springer 2016). Vietnam’s own poaching and wildlife black market, however, is not far behind. The World Wildlife Fund, one of the world’s largest conservation organizations, reported Vietnam as the worst country in its last Wildlife Crime Scoreboard report, published in 2012. The report states that Vietnam’s failure to meet the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora compliance and enforcement standards put the country as the worst for wildlife crime.

While Vietnam’s government does not support the illegal wildlife trade, there is little to no enforcement and prosecution is rare. Increased enforcement in nearby countries such as China will likely push traffickers into less-regulated parts of Southeast Asia. Once the Chinese international black market for ivory shuts down, it will likely shift into Vietnam.

The illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam—as well as in various other countries—is motivated by the demand for parts used in traditional medicine, souvenirs, pets, and exotic foods, which all point to high monetary incentives. The trade’s illegality has attracted members of Vietnam’s rising middle class eager to advertise their prosperity. Vietnamese restaurants do not hesitate to advertise illegal exotic foods on their menus, as demand is high and local officials almost never do anything about it.

In Vietnam, the wildlife trade network seldom gets disrupted, and corrupt officials and rangers are often paid to turn a blind eye. Other times, these officials sell wildlife intercepted from illegal traffickers back into the black market. Even if they aren’t resold, the lack of rehabilitation facilities for these animals mean that they likely “just sit around until they die,” cites Chris Sheperd, the regional director in Southeast Asia of Traffic, which monitors wildlife trade.

In 2007, Vietnam made an effort to promote regulation and reduce the need for poaching tigers by legalizing tiger farms. However, this decision undermined the country’s efforts to police illegal trade in tiger products. What the decision succeeded to do was legalize the breeding, farming, and slaughtering of tigers and the trading and selling of tiger parts. Furthermore, poaching and trading pangolins are illegal, but the Vietnamese health insurance covers pangolin scales, a popular and highly demanded ingredient used in traditional medicine.

Undercover footage of Nhị Khê

Nhị Khê, a small village in in Vietnam, has become the major hub for the wildlife black market. The main products are carved ivory, tortoise shell, and rhino horn. According to The Week, “a single male elephant’s two tusks can weigh more than 250 pounds, with a pound of ivory fetching as much as $1,500 on the black market, and carved ivory likely commanding much more. Selling these lucrative products can be worth a fortune in a country where the average monthly salary is $210 USD.

As the number of elephants rapidly decline, many people are motivated to buy as much ivory as possible before the supply disappears. This is the case for people in Vietnam. Since purchasing ivory requires money and connections, owning ivory is considered a symbol of status and wealth, something the rising class in Vietnam is eager to achieve. Vietnamese Americans who were able to bring the luxury item with them when they left Vietnam hold onto it as a way to cling onto the social and economic status they once had. Many of the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans do not regard ivory as a symbol of one's social position or indicator of economic status. The continuous revisions to limit and ban the ivory trade serve to call attention to the cruel practice of poaching elephants, the morally questionable trading and selling of ivory, and the impacts on conservation, are what the younger generation is increasingly able to witness.

Since June 2016, the United States made revisions to the commercial trade of ivory. Exports and sales across state lines are further restricted and sport hunted ivory imports are now limited to two per hunter per year. However, the new regulations do not restrict personal possession of ivory. Prior to these revisions, the U.S required that all ivory transactions must have been legally brought to the U.S before 1990 and obtained before 1978. These are considered old or antique ivory and would not threaten the current population of elephants. However, dealers often exploited this loophole to pass off new ivory as old.

With China cracking down on its ivory trade, Vietnam will likely become a free zone for illegal poachers and traders unless it faces greater political pressure. Vietnam must adequately fund efforts to not only curve, but to disrupt and dismantle its illegal trade networks. These efforts must include better enforcement and prosecution to deter the illegal activity as well as specialized rehabilitation and rescue centers for wildlife intercepted from traffickers.

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Carolyn Lê


A San José native and a recent graduate from University of Santa Cruz with honors in Literature, Carolyn has a deep appreciation for Vietnamese American literature and the Vietnamese American community. She is excited to be a part of an organization such as Chopsticks Alley, one that celebrates Vietnamese American culture and encourages positive self-identification. Driven by her educational background in literary criticism, she seeks to empower those who are historically marginalized, underrepresented, and underserved through literature and writing. She is also a dog-lover and has been a professional Dog Training Instructor for over 7 years!

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