South Africa and Vietnam have signed a landmark agreement that could turn the tide on the scourge of rhino poaching that has seen over 600 rhinos slaughtered in South Africa this year.
The release last month of the official rhino poaching figures for South Africa had environmentalists questioning whether authorities were winning the war against the crime.
As of this week, a staggering 607 rhinos have been poached in South Africa this year - 364 of these in the Kruger National Park.
But as SAnews reports from the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, the memorandum of understanding signed on Monday by South Africa's Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa and her Vietnamese counterpart, Cao Duc Phat, signals the widest-ranging step yet taken to pull the plug on the illegal rhino horn trade.
Illegal horn trade centres on Vietnam
According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 75% of the world's rhino population is found in South Africa.
And while the illegal horn trade reportedly once revolved around markets in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Yemen, it now centres on Vietnam - premised on the superstitious belief, widespread through Asia, that rhino horn improves sexual performance and can help cure various diseases, including cancer.
The agreement sealed on Monday lists seven areas of cooperation in biodiversity, and is not only limited to the issue of rhino poaching. But judging by the media interest the poaching crisis has generated, the fight to save the rhino will be central to the agreement.
Active intervention by authorities
South Africa wants Vietnamese government officials at the highest level to commit to the fight by imposing strict punishments for poachers and traders.
"Having signed this memorandum of understanding with Vietnam today, we hope that the two countries will be able to tighten the regulatory framework so that any potential transit that can happen or could happen is actually curbed," Molewa said.
She stressed the importance of authorities from both countries actually getting involved to curb the illegal trade.
"We want to ensure that we will really work hard to see to it that all the regulations governing hunting, and rhino in particular, are adhered to ... Poaching is quite a serious issue in South Africa, so we really think that we need to work together, and we are happy that the authorities in Vietnam have actually agreed to sign this memorandum of understanding."
The minister revealed in an interview that talks with scientists were planned to get their views on the medical benefits of the rhino horn, with controlled harvesting of the horn a possible future step.
No ban on legal hunting
Molewa said her ministry would continue to allow legal hunting, and that there was no ban being imposed on Vietnamese game hunters.
Figures in possession of SAnews show that in 2009, South Africa granted 85 hunting permits to Vietnamese nationals. The number rose to 91 in 2011 before a sudden decline to just eight permits this year.
Molewa said this decline was due to processes that were put in place to ensure that there was control over rhino horns were entering Asia.
"This memorandum we are signing here is one of those processes. There is absolutely no ban being imposed on [legal hunters from] Vietnam," she said.
The government hopes that recent amendments to the Biodiversity Act will help manage the hunting industry, which contributes about R2.3-billion to South Africa's gross domestic product (GDP) while creating hundreds of jobs in rural areas.
The amendments make it illegal for people to hunt without the supervision of a conservation officer. "Any hunting that does not abide by this regulation is deemed illegal. We realised that there were gaps in the law, and we have closed those gaps," Molewa said.
Vietnam 'committed to curbing illegal trade'
Vietnamese government officials on Monday came out in full condemnation of poaching.
To demonstrate its commitment to curbing illegal rhino killings, Minister Cao Duc Phat said the Vietnamese government had increased its resources to security agencies fighting the crime.
Cao Duc Phat said claims that Vietnam had been soft on poachers were unfair and unfounded.
"So far, Vietnam has made strong commitments to tackle the illegal use of rhino horns, and we will increase our commitment," he said. "With the signing of the memorandum, the two sides will sit together and draw a very detailed plan to address this problem."
Of the widespread belief that rhino horn can cure and prevent cancer, Cao Duc Phat said: "I would like to repeat, that information is not official and not correct. We have directed scientific authorities to conduct some research on whether or not rhino horn can cure cancer. So there is not an official announcement in that regard."
Hacong Tuan, the deputy minister of agriculture and rural development, even hinted at the possibility of banning the import of rhino horn hunting trophies.
He admitted though that there could be many rhino horns entering the country without the knowledge of the authorities, adding that it was not an easy matter to combat smuggling.
"It's never easy... we believe the signing today should serve as our commitment to address all the violation issues."