A great hornbill (scientific name: Buceros bicornis) in Bạch Mã National Park, the central province of Thừa Thiên-Huế. Known in Việt Nam under the common name of 'land phoenix', the bird is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. — VNA/VNS Photo
Phạm Văn Điển, Deputy Director of the Việt Nam Administration of Forestry, talks to Việt Nam Government Portal (VGP) on the country’s efforts to consolidate the legal framework on wildlife protection.
Could you give us a brief overview of Việt Nam’s legal system regarding the wildlife trade?
Việt Nam has actually paid attention to the building of legal regulations on the management and protection of wildlife since quite early. In 1963, the Government Council had issued a provisional ruling which bans killings or acts that cause harm to a number of wild animal species, including birds and forest animals, especially if they are not causing damage to people’s safety or economic activities (Decree No.39-CP, signed on April 5, 1963).
In 1964, Việt Nam became the 121st member of the international agreement Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
And so far, we have codified the convention into its domestic legal framework via 60 wildlife management legal documents – covering the fields of forestry, fisheries, environmental resources, investment, administration and crime – including seven laws and codes, four decrees, one resolution, one decision from the Prime Minister and three circulars.
Việt Nam or 183 CITES members do not actually put in place a complete ban on wildlife management, but institute bans on certain species. The Prime Minister has issued a ban on importing ivory and rhino horn specimens (Decision No.11 /QĐ-TTg).
A list of over 200 endangered, precious and rare wildlife species banned from exploitation and use for business investment purposes is also issued together with the 2014 Law on Investment.
The CITES Secretariat has placed Việt Nam under the Category 1 group, which indicates that its national law has satisfied the requirements of the convention – designating one management authority, prohibiting trade of specimens in violation of the convention, penalising the trade of such specimens, and confiscating specimens illegally traded or possessed.
However, it still needs to be acknowledged that the Vietnamese wildlife legal framework is lacking in systematic coherence and there are several overlapping items across different regulations.
Recently, there have been reports suggesting that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic originated from wildlife, so governments around the world need to take quicker and more drastic actions to end the wildlife trade completely, to prevent similar crises. What is your thinking on this?
Currently, many international studies have posited that SARS-CoV-2 might be zoonotic, that the virus originate from wildlife – likely bats. Findings demonstrate similarity of the DNA sequence of SARS-CoV-2 virus causing the disease in humans and the coronavirus in wildlife is about 90 to 93 per cent, which is not high enough compared to the usual cases of 97 per cent or higher for zoonotic diseases, so to date, we cannot be resolutely sure that the COVID-19 outbreak originated from wildlife.
However, we could not rule out the risks of virus existing in animals undergoing mutations into strains that infect humans, as history has shown in the cases of Ebola, MERS coronavirus, SARS or H5N1, etc.
The complete termination of illegal wildlife trade is Việt Nam’s commitment, in line with international practice and certainly supported by the public. I would like to reiterate that Việt Nam’s laws on this issue are quite exhaustive, but it is important to systematise them to better carry out management efforts.
Putting an end to the wildlife trade is not an easy task, it should be carefully considered to balance conservation with development needs, in order to achieve sustainable development. And this balance is precisely what governments are gravitating towards in management and policy implementation.
How effective has the implementation of prohibitions been in Việt Nam?
The prohibited wildlife list has contained 200 species that are banned from exploitation, use, investment and trade.
Regarding management, we have listed all banned activities such as hunting, trading, breeding, possessing, processing, importing and exporting of wildlife against regulations. The legal economic activities concerning wildlife are managed in line with CITES and Việt Nam’s particular situation, with coordination between relevant sectors and transparency.
On the penalty level, the levels of administrative fines and criminal punishments in compliance with CITES were quite clear and harsh. For example, in Việt Nam, wildlife offences could result in maximum 15 years in jail, while the cap in the US being five years, 10 in Malaysia and 12 in China.
Việt Nam has designated 18 State agencies who have the responsibilities to ensure CITES compliance.
We need to look at the fact that the huge profits from wildlife trade have prompted many to ignore legal regulations. Do you think raising penalties is the way to go?
Data have shown that globally, wildlife crimes are now among the most profitable activities, just behind arms smuggling, drug trafficking and human smuggling.
Strict penalties are of course necessary, but they are not the only effective solution. For example, the United Nations remarked that many countries have failed to stem drug trafficking activities despite severe punishment, including death penalties.
In order to effectively manage the wildlife trade, we need to implement comprehensive measures, with law enforcement being the key. There should be better cooperation between lifting the capacity of those involved in wildlife protection efforts, improving effectiveness of the investigation, prosecution and judgement, in coordination with raising awareness, improving livelihoods and applying technology in wildlife traceability. We also need better forecasts to effectively disrupt the illegal movement of wildlife from or into the country.
Việt Nam Administration of Forestry is finalising a draft version of the Prime Minister's Directive on a number of urgent measures for wildlife management. The directive is expected to bring about a significant "turning point" in wildlife protection in Việt Nam. Could you share some information about this draft, or the immediate and long-term goals that the directive is aiming for?
We have advised the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to submit to the Prime Minister this Directive.
The draft Directive deals with urgent solutions in law enforcement, mobilising the whole political system to better control wildlife hunting, capturing, raising, trading, importing and exporting.
The specific content of the Directive, however, will be decided by the Prime Minister.
Currently, we are preparing a detailed plan to put in place immediately when the Directive is issued, in order to achieve practical effects and supplement legal documents in this field and continue to show a responsible image of Việt Nam to the world community. — VNS