JOHANNESBURG -- More needs to be done to dispel the myth among the Vietnamese that rhinoceros horn can cure cancer, Vietnamese officials said Wednesday after meeting with their South African counterparts about curbing rhino poaching.
This year already, 309 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, compared to the 2010 record of 333, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs. The 2010 figure was nearly triple the deaths in 2009.
Demand for rhino horn among a growing Vietnamese middle class is believed to be driving the poaching spike in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa – Vietnam's own rhinos are nearly extinct. David Newton of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said demand in China and Thailand also was a concern, but that recently, the "vast majority" of rhino horn smuggling prosecutions involved Vietnamese citizens.
"We need to raise public awareness of the importance of biodiversity and we need to get rid of the wrong understanding that rhino horn can cure cancer," said Kien Nguyen, a Vietnamese diplomat who took part in two days of talks with South African diplomats, conservationists and law enforcement and prosecuting authorities.
Tuan Cong Ha, a Vietnamese environmental affairs official who headed his country's delegation in South Africa, called on medical researchers in his country to study what he called the cancer-cure "rumor" and make their findings public. He also said attempts to educate Vietnamese should be more specific, saying previous campaigns have spoken only generally of the need to protect wildlife.
Newton said rhino horn has been used traditionally in Asia to treat fever. He said the focus on cancer was new, and that Wednesday's comments from Vietnamese officials showed they were aware of a growing problem.
The Vietnamese and South African officials said a key focus of their talks was the need to ensure that Vietnamese who come to South Africa as trophy hunters do not return and sell rhino horn on the black market. It is legal to keep rhino horn as a souvenir, but not to trade in it. Such illegal trade can lead to up to seven years in prison in Vietnam, Nguyen said.
The Vietnamese officials in South Africa on Wednesday could not provide figures for arrests and prosecutions in Vietnam.
Newton, of TRAFFIC, said Vietnam needed to be more open about the problem and what was being done to combat it.
"They're increasingly paying attention to it, but there's obviously a very long way for them to go," he said in an interview.
Fundisile Mketeni, who led the South African delegation in talks with the Vietnamese, said South Africa would schedule similar meetings with Chinese and Thai officials.
"All those countries have a role to play," Newton said. "It's absolutely urgent that South Africa does get those countries involved."