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ENV’s Wildlife Crime Unit was established in 2005 as a means to encourage public reporting of wildlife crimes. Trained case officers pass information to the authorities and track each case through to conclusion. Since 2005, the crime unit has handled more than 6,300 cases through enforcement campaigns and compliance programs targeting business owners, and reduced wildlife crimes by as much as 62% in targeted districts of major cities. ENV reported cases have also resulted in hundreds of confiscations and the successful rescue of animals ranging from tigers and bears to dozens of gibbons, lorises, and other wildlife.
ENV’s efforts to combat wildlife crime in Vietnam are carried out in cooperation with law enforcement agencies across the country, and information from ENV’s growing informant network and field investigations have played critical roles in uncovering major criminal networks that stand behind much of the illegal smuggling and trade of high-value wildlife such as rhino horn, tigers, and pangolins.
Read on to experience a typical day in the life of ENV’s Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU)…
It’s Monday morning in ENV’s WCU and Mr. Quan, the unit team-leader has just completed his morning briefing with seven case officers that are now seated at their desks. Computers whirl into action as the case officers bring up their priority cases for the day.
ENV Major Crimes Officer Phuong is working on a rhino horn advertising case. A Ho Chi Minh City resident has posted an advertisement on the internet offering a piece of rhino horn for 12,000,000 VND (~$600 USD). The crime unit deals with internet advertisement cases almost daily but in this case due to the serious nature of the crime (as it involves rhino horn), Phuong attempts to set up a sting operation with police, whereby she pretends to want to purchase the horn, hoping to get the suspect, the product, and the police in the same place for a bust. Most cases never make it that far because sellers are conscious of potential traps set by law enforcement and a police response is never assured.
However, in this case, the suspect is willing to meet. Interestingly, she says that the small piece of rhino horn was bought from a reliable source for a family member who had cancer. However, her Uncle died despite the use of “magic medicine” and now she wished to sell it. She tried to convince Phuong that the horn was genuine, stating that the piece had been tested at a scientific institution and assuring that it came from a reliable source.
Phuong talks with Ho Chi Minh City Environmental Police to set up a buy. ENV’s investigator Nguyen has made contact with the suspect to make an offer while ENV anxiously awaits word from the police indicating that they will follow through with the case.
Region South Case Officer Thanh receives a call on the hotline from a Da Nang resident reporting a macaque and a squirrel being kept by a man in a public park. Thanh therefore contacts Da Nang Forest Protection Department and transfers the case information. Three hours later, Da Nang FPD reports that they have located the animals and the owner, who claims to have recently purchased them from a street vendor. The macaque and squirrel are confiscated and the man is issued a warning. Thanh notifies the Da Nang resident who reported the crime of the good news, thanks them for their support, and turns her attention to some of her more than 300 other active cases she is tracking.
No sooner than she is off the phone with Dang Nang authorities, a live marine turtle case is reported on the hotline by a citizen in Ho Chi Minh City. CO Thanh calls Fisheries providing the name and the address of the establishment and requests an immediate response. She also alerts ENV’s Ho Chi Minh team to go to the establishment and assist with the case.
Case officer CB Phuong, who covers the northern region, is on the phone with the Forest Protection Department in Nghe An, tracking the confiscation of 24 pangolins from a bus the previous day. The bus has a Laos registration plate but was driven by a Vietnamese man from a district in Ha Tinh, the center of pangolin smuggling in Vietnam. Officer Phuong collects the case facts and logs the case into ENV’s Wildlife Crime Incident Tracking Database, a collection of more than 6,300 cases which detail more than 15,000 individual violations which have been documented since 2005. As she is logging the case she runs the subject’s name on database and gets a hit. The subject in this case has been arrested before on similar charges more than a year ago in a neighboring province. Officer Phuong gets on the phone and contacts provincial Environmental Police and informs them of the prior case which, under Vietnamese law, permits the authorities to treat the incident as a criminal case.
Officer Mai is preparing a list of restaurants that need to be inspected in Ho Chi Minh City. She will send the list out this afternoon to ENV’s volunteer club in Ho Chi Minh City so that the businesses can be checked for further violations. Most of the cases represent minor crimes such as advertising wildlife on menus; written warnings have been issued to business owners advising them of the violation and asking for voluntary compliance. Local authorities have been copied in on the warnings and volunteers are now needed to check and see if the businesses are in compliance. They also have several live animal cases to check out, including a loris reported during the previous day for sale by a street vendor. In this case, local Forest Rangers have been contacted and checked the site, but reported that the loris was not there. Volunteers will determine if the violation is still active and report back immediately if the loris is observed.
Bear crime officer Van Anh calls in from Quang Ninh province where she and an ENV volunteer are conducting surveillance of several bear farms known for illegally entertaining busloads of Korean tourists with a live bear bile extraction and offering to sell them bear bile. Van Anh reports that two of the farms are quite, but that three busses have been documented stopping at one of the farms so far this morning, leaving their passengers there for about an hour before collecting them and heading off in the direction of Hanoi. Van Anh documents the registration number of each bus, the tour company, and other details of the visit before immediately transferring the information to the ENV crime unit as well as the Environmental Police in Ha Long.
The surveillance campaign has been intensive over the previous two months and the provincial People’s Committee has agreed to close the farms permanently. However, local authorities remain resistant. Further surveillance is therefore required to keep the provincial leadership informed and ensure that the relevant agencies follow through with instructions from their leaders.
Major crimes officer Phuong is disappointed with the results of the rhino horn case: Environmental Police contacted the subject and issued her with a warning, noting that they believed the rhino horn was fake. Phuong immediately contacts the website administrator and has the advertisement removed. Phuong also flags the case for ENV’s investigators to interview the subject as a follow up measure and collect more information about the alleged piece of rhino horn.
It’s been a typical busy day in the crime unit with four new cases reported (two more than the daily average). Crime unit team-leader Quan reminds his team that it is now past 6 p.m. and that they should finish up what they are doing and go home for the day. Tomorrow will bring new cases and more challenges for the crime unit in their never-ending battle to protect their country’s wildlife.
Note: All of the incidents noted above are based upon actual cases handled by the Wildlife Crime Unit during routine daily operation of the team.