JOHANNESBURG— South Africa's anti-poaching efforts got an international boost this week, when Vietnam agreed to work in tandem to decrease the illegal trade. As rhino poaching hits decade highs this year, wildlife advocates say this is a big step in the right direction for conservation.
South Africa is taking its fight against rhino poaching abroad. Officials signed an agreement on December 10 with the Vietnamese government to prevent and discourage poaching.
The agreement seeks cooperation between law enforcement in both countries, a mutual compliance with international poaching laws and strong anti-poaching legislation within both countries.
Richard Thomas, a spokesman for TRAFFIC, the anti-poaching organization that helped bring the two countries together for the agreement, says this is a big step in the right direction.
"The success or otherwise of the agreement will be highly dependent on the political will to implement it," said Thomas. "If such will exists - and we've already seen it does on the South Africa side of the equation - but now we have official public recognition by Vietnam that there is a very real issue with illegal rhino horn trade in that country too - it means adequate resources will be devoted to having a real impact on the organized criminal networks who are behind the horn trafficking."
South Africa is home to about 80 percent of the world's rhino population. Vietnam is one of several Asian countries with a high demand for rhino horn, which is mistakenly thought to cure cancer or be an aphrodisiac, among other perceived uses.
Thomas says official Vietnamese cooperation is a significant step.
"I think it's very significant that Vietnam and SA have made this agreement to actually tackle, the actual agreement, the wording of it, doesn't specifically mention rhinos but both the ministers in their speeches made specific references to rhino trafficking so I think that's an important development that you have these two political figures recognizing," Thomas added.
As the agreement was being signed on December 10, sobering new numbers were released here in South Africa: 618 rhinos have been killed so far this year, almost double the number killed in 2010.
Dr. Jo Shaw, a rhino coordinator with the World Wildlife Fund in South Africa, applauded the agreement, but says urgency is essential in combating rhino poaching.
"There really is no room for complacency and we really do need to see commitment from government in combating the problem," said Shaw.
South Africa has upped its anti-poaching measures in the last few years, but is also now determined to bring more international players into the fight, says Albi Modise, the spokesman for South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs.
"Rhino poaching is an international problem. It might be occurring in South Africa, but it is driven by the international demand," Modise noted. "For us effectively to deal with the on-going poaching, we also realize that our approach must be multi-pronged. One of the problems we need to look at is how we engage with foreign countries like most of the Asian countries. We've just signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] now with Vietnam, our plan is to sign one with China, with Thailand as well and we are in discussions with Hong Kong authorities as well.
Shaw says the international response to poaching has to target several areas.
"I don't think there is any one single solution," Shaw added. "I think it is going to need to be a range of different roles taking place over different time frames. The MOU is actually around part of regulation and law enforcement. It's great to see politicians taking wildlife crimes seriously."
Thomas reiterated the importance of action after this agreement. Thomas notes that rhino poaching is showing no signs of slowing down and indeed it has escalated from 13 animals in 2007 to more than 600 this year.