Stemming the flow of illegal wildlife trafficking in Viet Nam

On a March morning in 2023, customs officials at Hai Phong Port in Da Nang, Viet Nam, opened a container from Angola. Acting on concerns raised by the container’s route, the inspectors discovered seven tons of ivory, equivalent to the tusks of over 700 elephants. The seizure, the port’s largest, came after the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Saving Threatened Wildlife project held a workshop with customs officers on maritime cargo inspection and screening procedures to control and detect wildlife trafficking.

Viet Nam has long been exploited by organized crime syndicates as a strategically located transport hub for the global illegal wildlife trade. “Wildlife is taken illegally from Viet Nam’s wildlife areas, it is brought into and through the country by traffickers, and it is purchased in-country for domestic use,” says Dechen Dorji, WWF’s senior director, Asian wildlife. Every year, pangolin scales, rhino horns, tiger bones, and other animal parts pass through its ports.

As part of Viet Nam’s efforts to stop wildlife crime, there has been a renewed focus on protecting tigers. The big cats are believed to be extinct in the wild in Viet Nam, but can be found in the captive market. Recent innovations include the development of a national tiger DNA database and framework. This, combined with improved management of captive tigers, will help identify and hold accountable facilities that keep captive tigers for the illegal wildlife trade.

“For 15 to 20 years, Viet Nam has been viewed as one of the most significant countries for the trafficking of wildlife, but that has changed dramatically in the past few years,” says Crawford Allan, senior director, wildlife crime at WWF. “There has been this major turnaround—the Vietnamese government has become very responsive and responsible.”

USAID launched the $15 million Saving Threatened Wildlife project in 2021 with the aim of strengthening Viet Nam’s leadership in tackling wildlife trafficking. In cooperation with the Viet Nam government and alongside TRAFFIC, Education for Nature Viet Nam, other NGOs, and private-sector partners, WWF is implementing the five-year program.

Stemming the trade is imperative, says Michelle Owen, WWF’s chief of party for the project. “Look what happened with pangolins,” she says. Demand for the mammals’ meat (prized as a delicacy) and scales (used in a range of traditional remedies) has driven all eight pangolin species to the brink of extinction. “That could quite easily happen for other species as the demand for wild animals as products and pets continues,” she says.

The project addresses the trafficking of species at multiple levels: targeting the demand for wildlife products purchased by tourists or used in traditional medicine; addressing the processes that support this demand, including transport systems and online trade; and engaging with political leaders and policy-makers to ensure adherence to international commitments.

“Every one of these actions is so important,” says Owen. “Viet Nam’s government has taken strong steps toward preventing the illegal trade and laundering of wildlife in the country,” she adds, “and we are proud to be their partners in that work.”

The illegal trafficking of wildlife through, to, and from Viet Nam is a long-standing issue, but impressive strides to curb the problem have been made in recent years. WWF, USAID, and other generous donors, including the Moccasin Lake Foundation, are working with the Vietnamese government to build on those successes and further reduce the illegal trade of wild animals and their parts.


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