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Vietnam Wildlife Trafficking Arrests Rise, After COVID-19 Link to Animals

A path of red clay runs through a forest outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (VOA News)
A path of red clay runs through a forest outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (VOA News)

After scientists determined that the coronavirus likely spread from an animal to a human, there came a flurry of statements from nations around Asia promising to ban the trafficking of animals. Now there is data to suggest that authorities, at least in Vietnam, are following through with enforcing the bans.

Among the cases of trafficked wildlife that was seized in Vietnam, the percent that led to arrests reached 97% in the first half of this year, according to Education for Nature Vietnam, an environmental organization. From 2015 to 2019, the number had remained steady at around 87%.

Scientists believe the pandemic may have begun after human contact with an infected bat or pangolin in China. Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations act as a frequent conduit for illicit animal products that end up in China. In recent years police have seized pangolins, a scaly mammal that resembles armadillos, as well as endangered turtles, gibbons, and langurs in Vietnam.

'More serious'

“ENV’s prosecution analysis attests to the strength of the current penal code and the elevated efforts of Vietnam’s law enforcement and criminal justice courts to take down wildlife criminals,” Bui Thi Ha, the vice director of Education for Nature Vietnam said, referring to the penal code that was revised in 2018. “Since the new law has been in force, and especially this year in 2020, evidence shows that wildlife trafficking crimes are being taken more seriously in Vietnam.”

Ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus, ending wildlife trafficking has become more urgent to stop a potential source of disease, as well as any harm to wildlife, environmentalists say. Facebook has responded by taking down hundreds of posts offering illegal animals and animal parts in Southeast Asia.

In Vietnam, in addition to the increase in the arrest rate, more criminals are going to prison. Among trafficking cases that went to court, the percent that resulted in a prison sentence reached 68% this year, according to data compiled by ENV. That contrasts with 2015 to 2019, when the percentage did not go beyond 49%.

Prison Terms

“This suggests the courts are taking a much more assertive stance to wipe out wildlife crime in 2020 than in previous years,” ENV said in an analysis of 552 cases in the past five years.

It recommended that Vietnam, to fully end the trafficking, next turn its attention to the leaders of the trafficking rings, as well as the state officials who support them. The Southeast Asian nation can also focus enforcement on ports and airports, as well as on the use of money laundering, ENV said.

Vietnam says it is taking a “whole of government” approach to enforcement. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc published a directive in July prohibiting the import and sale of wildlife products. The premier’s order assigns a task to each office, from the defense ministry increasing border patrols, to the health ministry checking that pharmacies don’t sell drugs with illegal animal parts.

The state prosecutor said in a statement it will enforce the directive by increasing investigations of transnational criminals, as well as impose “severe penalties on masterminds and leaders who abuse positions and powers to commit crimes.”