HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A conservation group ranked Vietnam the worst country for wildlife crime Monday in its first-ever report on how well 23 Asian and African countries protect rhinos, tigers and elephants.
WWF said Vietnam's tiger farms and its citizens' voracious appetite for rhino horn as a supposed cure-all helped put it at the top of the list. Neighboring China, widely viewed as the world's largest market for illegal wildlife products, finished a close second, and Laos was third.
The Switzerland-based WWF focused its report on countries where the threatened animals live in the wild or are traded or consumed.
Many consumers in Asia demand illegal wildlife products for their purported, if unproven, medicinal properties. The Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution has said the illegal wildlife trade is worth an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion per year in Southeast Asia alone.
The WWF report said Vietnam is "the major destination" for rhino horns trafficked from South Africa, where 448 rhinos were poached last year. Rhino horn can fetch the U.S. street value of cocaine in Asia, where it is crushed and consumed by people who believe — wrongly, doctors say — that it can cure diseases.
It also said Vietnam's 2007 decision to legalize tiger farms on a pilot basis has "undermined" the country's efforts to police illegal trade in tiger products. Vietnam has 11 registered tiger farms.
The 35-page report comes on the heels of a controversy that erupted in May, when international wildlife experts learned that Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development had in March proposed allowing parts of tigers that die in captivity to be made into traditional medicine on a pilot basis.
Wildlife advocacy groups later said the proposal was designed to effectively legalize trade in tiger products — an accusation Vietnam denied. An official at Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's office told the Associated Press earlier this month that Dung had rejected the proposal.