ENDANGERED RHINOS, RHINO HORNS, VIETNAM AND CHINESE MEDICINE

ENDANGERED RHINOS

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Rhino horn medicine
The world's rhino population has declined 90 percent since 1970, conservationists estimate. In Africa, there are some 20,150 white rhinos that are near threatened and 4,840 black rhinos that are critically endangered. South Africa is home to more than 90 percent of Africa's rhino population. [Source: Yara Bayoumy, Reuters, April 4, 2012]

By the 2010s the price of rhinoceros horn had reached $50,000 per kilogram, higher than the price of gold, the African Wildlife Foundation said. In October 2011, Vietnam’s Javan rhino was declared extinct in the country, and in November, East Africa’s Western Black Rhino was declared extinct in the wild. If the poaching situation was left unchecked, expert said, rhinoceros could become extinct in the wild by 2025.

"We've certainly reached a tipping point in rhino populations. There is no way that our national populations can sustain the level of poaching," Pelham Jones, chairman of the South Africa Private Rhino Owners Association, told Reuters. "What I've seen in the past is that many politicians ... have solidly got their heads in the sand ... The attitude of saying that there is no crisis is a statement of denial. There is a crisis," Jones said.

Decline of Rhinoceros in Africa

The number of rhinos in Africa and Asia has plummeted from 100,000 animals in 1975 to less that 10,000 in 1995. The primary reason for the decline was the poaching of rhinoceros for their horns.

Richard Conniff wrote in Smithsonian magazine, White rhinos once occurred in pockets down the length of Africa, from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope. But because of relentless hunting and colonial land-clearing, there were no more than a few hundred individuals left in southern Africa by the end of the 19th century, and the last known breeding population was in KwaZulu-Natal Province on South Africa’s eastern coast. In 1895, colonial conservationists set aside a large tract specifically for the remaining rhinos---Africa’s first protected conservation area---now known as Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. [Source: Richard Conniff, Smithsonian magazine, November 2011]

In the late 1970s half of Uganda's white rhinoceros population disappeared. The single animal was most likely shot by poachers. As of the 1980's there were perhaps six or seven black rhinoceros in that country. One reason for the shortages of rhinoceros, as well as elephants, was the availability of cheap automatic weapons during and after the Idi Amin years. "Almost anybody who wanted one could get one," people said.



Only 13 Endangered Rhinos Found On Borneo

In March 2006, Reuters reported: “Poachers have killed most endangered rhinoceroses in a rainforest on the island of Borneo, but at least 13 have survived, WWF International said. The Swiss-based conservation group said it and Malaysian authorities have put in place protection units to patrol Sabah state in northern Borneo, where experts found evidence of 13 rare Sumatran rhinos during an extensive survey last year.

"Poaching has decimated Borneo's once-healthy rhino population, but we were heartened to find that a few individuals have managed to cling to survival," said Raymond Alfred of WWF-Malaysia. Previous estimates had suggested there were 30 to 70 rhinos on Borneo, all in Sabah, one of two Malaysian provinces on the forest-covered island. Rhinos in Sarawak, the other Malaysian state, and on the Indonesian side of Borneo are believed to be extinct, it said.The survey's findings were withheld until protection could be organised for the rhinos due to continued poaching fears, it added.

A field survey in the Malaysian state of Sabah and analysis of data on historical rhino habitat have found that poaching has significantly reduced Borneo's population of Sumatran rhinos in recent years, but a small group of rhinos continues to survive in the 'Heart of Borneo', a region covered with vast tracks of rainforest. The survey--conducted in 2005 by teams of more than 100 field staff from WWF, local wildlife officials and others--found evidence of at least 13 rhinos in the interior of Sabah.

"Poaching has decimated Borneo's once-healthy rhino population, but we were heartened to find that a few individuals have managed to cling to survival," said Raymond Alfred of WWF-Malaysia. "Conservationists and Sabah government agencies are working hard to ensure this small population is protected and can grow." In addition to the 13 rhinos found in the interior of Sabah, scattered individuals still survive as well in other parts of Sabah that weren't covered by the study. Previous estimates of rhino numbers had suggested there were 30 to 70 rhinos on the island of Borneo, all in Sabah. Populations on the Indonesian side of the island and in the Malaysian state of Sarawak are believed to be extinct.

As poaching is such a threat to this species, the survey results were not released until strong protection measures could be put in place in the areas where the rhinos are found. Those security measures were recently installed. WWF-Malaysia and partners launched a five-year project called "Rhino Rescue" that will organize rhino protection units and other activities to deter poaching. Sumatran rhinos are only found in widely scattered areas across peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

"The results from the survey of Borneo's rhinos are crucial additions to our scientific understanding of the species," said Dr Christy Williams of WWF's Asian rhino programme. "We believe this population may be viable and could recover if their habitat is protected and the threat of poaching is eliminated." Sabah and the forests of the 'Heart of Borneo' still hold huge tracts of continuous natural forests, which are some of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth, with high numbers of unique animal and plant species.

This is one of the world's only two places--the other being Indonesia's Sumatra Island---where orangutans, elephants and rhinos still co-exist and where forests are currently large enough to maintain viable populations. WWF aims to assist Borneo's three nations (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia) to conserve the 'Heart of Borneo' “a total of 220,000 square kilometers of equatorial rainforest--through a network of protected areas and sustainably managed forest, and through international cooperation led by the Bornean governments and supported by a global effort.

Rhino Horn


Rhino horn is arguable the most valuable substance on this planet. It is possible to anesthesize a rhino and saw off the horn but the process is dangerous. The rhino may die and the person who dios the sawing might be injured. Poachers prefer to just kill the animal.

Both African species and the Sumatran rhinoceros have two horns, while the Indian and Javan rhinoceros have a single horn. A 19th century description of Indian rhinoceros explains that the horn "projects, not infrequently 30 inches upwards. So long as the animal is quiet, this appendage lies loose between the nostrils, but when excited, the muscular tension is so great that it becomes immovably fixed, and can be darted into a tree to the depth of several inches."

A rhinoceros’s horn is not made out of bone, rather it is composed matted hair and fibrous keratin, the same horny substance found in fingernails, human hair and lizard scales. It has been said that Asian people who take rhino horn for a folk medicine could obtain the same results from swallowing hair trimmings or chewing their fingernails. If a rhinoceros loses its horn, the horn grows back at a rate of about three inches a year.

On the purpose of rhinos horns, SOS Rhino says on its website: “The horns are very well developed in the two species in Africa (black and white rhinos), but much smaller in the three species in Asia (Sumatran with 2 very small horns, Indian and Javan with one horn). The Asian species certainly do not use the horns to fight or to defend themselves, they use their incisors (sharp front teeth for the purpose). The horns have come about in evolution and they had (have) a general function to impress members of the opposite sex. Horns are also used for digging in waterbeds to find water, or to uproot shrubs etc. Some rhinos use the horn to guide their offspring. This is generally the front horn, the second horn does not have a very specific purpose at the moment. We suppose that they had some purpose in the course of evolution.”

High Value of Rhino Horn


According to Associated Press: Rhino horn offers bigger payoffs than other exotic wildlife products such as bear bile or tiger bone paste. American officials say the crushed powder fetches up to $55 000 per kilogram in Asia - a price that can top the US street value of cocaine and the current price of gold. [Source: Mike Ives, Associated Press , April 4, 2012 */*]

The Dallas News reported: “Black rhino horn sells for up to $25,000 a pound in China and Vietnam, where rarity makes it a status symbol rumored to possess powers to cure hangovers or disease. Some young people in these countries even use ground up horn as a drug. The demand has greatly increased poaching. “There’s this myth out there that rhino horn has properties that cure cancer,” Edward Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington. “But there are a number of studies that show rhino horn is just like fingernails. It has no medicinal properties.” Ten years ago a single horn weighing up to 30 pounds would have sold in the U.S. for a maximum of $20,000. “Now horn in the United States is selling anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 a pound,” says Grace. “By the time it gets to Asia, a single horn can easily be worth $500,000.”

Some sources have quoted a price as high as $65,500 per kilogram. Each horn weighs 2.9 to 3.7 kilograms. Simple arithmetic explains why the horns are the target of poachers. But with costs so high it also no surprise that much of the so-called rhino horn sold at pharmacies in major cities in China and Vietnam is fake, with buffalo horn the main substitute.

Adam Higginbotham wrote in Businessweek, “Rhino horn is one of the world’s most valuable illegal commodities, part of an international trade in endangered species estimated to be worth $10 billion a year, according to Global Financial Integrity, a research organization that tracks underground commerce. Over the last century, rhinos have been hunted to the brink of extinction, and traffic in rhino products is now regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In Asia, powdered rhino horn has long been a valued part of traditional medicine. It’s recently become more prized by a new capitalist elite in Vietnam—where it’s mixed with wine at parties, an emblem of conspicuous consumption—and China. [Source: Adam Higginbotham, Businessweek, January 2, 2014]

Rhino Horns and Asian Culture

Asia has a long connection with rhino horns. Some 2,500 years ago carved rhinoceros cups were used in Persian courts too detect poison, a power later attributed to the horn of the legendary unicorn, with which the rhino has been confused. Hindus believe that the rhino got its horn from Lord Vishnu. Nepalese rulers take a bath in rhino blood as part their ritual.

Rhino horns are excellent for carving and were crafted into delicate cups, plates and bowls carved from rhinoceros horn by master Chinese craftsmen during the Ming (1368-1644) and Ching (1644-1912) dynasties. Some of these works are among the marque pieces at Chinese art museum in Taiwan and China. Others were bought from collectors and businessmen. made their way to the storerooms of Chinese drug factories, where they were later to be pulverized into medicine. [National Geographic Earth Almanac, April 1991].

In Asia, the smaller Asian horn is considered more valuable than African horn. Asians prefer it because it's medicinal properties are considered more concentrated. Since there is a shortage of these animals the medicines from African rhinos are more common. Rhino horn is so expensive and rare that many products that claim to have it actually have water buffalo horn or some other substitute. Rhino horn products have been sold at pharmacies in Britain.

Rhinos and Medicines


In parts of Asia, rhino horns are highly prized for their use in traditional medicines. It has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, where it was ground into a powder and often mixed with hot water to treat a variety of maladies including rheumatism, gout, high fever and even devil possession. For the most part it is has traditionally been taken for relatively modest maladies such as fever and high blood pressure Contrary to popular belief, rhino horn has not been regarded as an aphrodisiac. In recent years an upsurge in demand has been linked to a rumor that rhino horn had miraculously cured a VIP in Vietnam of terminal liver cancer.

In Asia, rhinoceros hide has been cut into strips and prescribed for fever and skin afflictions and is believed to be a cure for fever and headaches. In Africa, the hide is used to treat snake bites, stop nosebleeds, keep evil spirits out of the houses. Even rhino urine is sold as a medicine. Zoo keepers collect it from baby rhinos in Rangoon where it is sold as a cure for sore throats and a preventative measure against asthma attacks. The zoo in Calcutta earned $750 in 1983 selling its urine for similar purposes.

In Indonesia rhinoceros horn it is used as an anti-poison agent and a cure for high fever and typhus. In Africa, the horn is sometimes mixed with dried lice as a treatment for jaundice Rhino elixirs sold in folk medicine shops in South Africa are supposed to attract women if rubbed on the eyebrows.

In China, rhino horn is regarded as an inflammation and fever reducing agent and is made into pills, potions, and tablets. Contrary to what many people are led to believe rhino is generally not sold as an aphrodisiac in Asia. Dried lizards, monkey brains, sparrow tongues, deer tails, rabbit hair, and tiger penises are sold as aphrodisiacs in Asian folk medicine shops---but not rhino horn. The only time Martin encountered it used in this way in western India where it sold as a love potion to cure importance. There are herbal sexual tonics such as Wild Rhino Sex Enhancement Tablets and Rhino Cola.

In Asia, the smaller Asian horn is considered more valuable than African horn. Asians prefer it because it's medicinal properties are considered more concentrated. Since there is a shortage of these animals the medicines from African rhinos are more common. Rhino horn is so expensive and rare that many products that claim to have it actually have water buffalo horn or some other substitute. Rhino horn products have been sold at pharmacies in Britain.

In Asia, rhinoceros the hide is cut into strips and prescribed for fever and skin afflictions and is believed to be a cure for fever and headaches. In Africa, the hide is used to treat snake bites, stop nosebleeds, keep evil spirits out of the houses. . Even rhino urine is sold as a medicine. Zoo keepers collect it from baby rhinos in Rangoon where it is sold as a cure for sore throats and a preventative measure against asthma attacks. The zoo in Calcutta earned US$750 in 1983 selling its urine for similar purposes.

Rhino Horn Use in China and Traditional Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine, the powder made of ground rhino horn is widely used and credited with significant curative powers. It has been used to treat maladies from rheumatism to devil possession. "Rhinoceros horn is touted as a cure-all," Rhishja Cota-Larson of the California-based organization Saving Rhinos told Der Spiegel. "It supposedly treats eczema, anxiety, convulsions, boils and devil possession," she said. But scientists have not found the horn, which is ingested in powdered form, to be of any medical benefit. "You'd get the same effect by chewing your fingernails," on expert said. [Source: Kate Katharina Ferguson, Der Spiegel, March 13, 2012]

A survey conducted in November of 2012 in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou by the Chinese research company, HorizonKey, found that: 1) 66 percent of all participants, that is two out of every three respondents, are not aware that rhino horn comes from poached rhinos; 2) Nearly 50 percent believed rhino horn can be legally purchased from official stores; and 3) 95 percent of residents agree the "Chinese government should take stricter action to prevent use of rhino horns." [Source: The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2013]

Traditional Chinese Medicine officially removed rhino horn from the pharmacopeia in China in 1993. These surveys, however, discovered that consumers are now buying rhino horn due to belief in its aphrodisiac properties and fever reducing capabilities. Rhino horn is also being used as a perceived investment and as an ornament or carving.

Illegal Rhino Horn Trade in the 1980s and 90s

Rhino poaching was epidemic in Africa in the 1980s and 90s as tens of thousands of animals were slaughtered and whole countries stripped of the animals, largely to obtain horns for traditional medicines in Asia and dagger handles in the Middle East. One of the biggest factors bringing about the sharp decline in the number of rhinoceros has been the rising income in Asians. Many more people in countries like China, Korea, and Taiwan. who couldn’t before, could suddenly afford expensive rhinoceros medicines, which has created more demand and caused prices to rise on the supply end.

In the mid 1980s Asian rhino horns were sold for $50,000 a kilogram in Hong Kong and $20,000 in Mandalay Burma, and African rhino horn retailed for US$11,000 a kilogram in Manila and Singapore and $50 a gram in Malaysia. At these price rhinoceros horn was one of the world's most valuable substances, worth almost five times as much as gold, and worth more than platinum, cocaine or heroin.

In the 1980s and 90s many rhino horns were to sold by traders based in Burundi. The horns were typically sold by the poachers for about $350, the equivalent of the average annual income for many people in the countries where rhinos are found. The hide was also valuable. In Hong Kong it went for about $30 a kilogram which translated to $3,600 for one 120 kilo hide.

A survey by the U.S. government in 1994 found that half of the 40 pharmacies it checked in Taiwan sold rhino horn. A survey in South Korea in 1993 found 300 kilograms of rhino horn, from an estimated 100 African rhinoceros being consumed. The trade in China was more difficult to investigate. In mid 1994 China admitted that it had a 8½ ton stockpile of rhino horn but then said six months later it only had 5 tons. A warehouse in Wuchan, China was found with the horns of 500 dead black rhinos worth $13 million. The traffickers worked for a state medical company.

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p> In September 1996, British authorities raided a warehouse in London and seized what at the time was the largest haul of rhino horns ever: 105 of them, work $4.4 million. They 1 percent of the existing population of white rhinos at the time.



Rhino Horn Use in Vietnam

Despite having only one fifteenth of China's population, Vietnam is now believed to be an even larger market for rhino horn than China. n Vietnam powdered rhino horn mixed with alcohol, is reputedly perceived as a cure for cancer. Many newly rich Vietnamese consume it after a hard night of partying. Rhino horn, once seen as a treatment only for royalty, is being swallowed by a small segment of the Vietnamese population who can afford prices of about $65,000 a kilogram, conservation groups say.

Mike Ives wrote in Associated Press “Nguyen Huong Giang loves to party but loathes hangovers, so she ends her whiskey benders by tossing back shots of rhino horn ground with water on a special ceramic plate. Her father gave her the 10cm brown horn as a gift, claiming it cures everything from headaches to cancer. Vietnam has become so obsessed with the fingernail-like substance it now sells for more than cocaine. "I don't know how much it costs," said Giang, aged 24, after showing off the horn in her high-rise apartment overlooking the capital, Hanoi. "I only know it's expensive." [Source: Mike Ives, Associated Press , April 4, 2012 */*]

“Experts say Vietnam's surging demand is threatening to wipe out the world's remaining rhinoceros populations, which recovered from the brink of extinction after the 1970s thanks to conservation campaigns. South Africa called for renewed co-operation with Vietnam after a "shocking number" of rhinos have already been reported dead this year. China has long valued rhino horn for its purported - though unproven - medicinal properties, but US officials and international wildlife experts now say Vietnam's recent intense craving, blamed partly on a widespread rumour that rhino horn cures cancer, is putting unprecedented pressure on the world's estimated 28 000 remaining animals, mainly in South Africa. "It's a very dire situation," US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said by telephone. "We have very little cushion for these populations in the wild."*/*


“Although data on the global rhino horn trade is scarce, poaching in Africa has soared in the past two years, with American officials saying China and Vietnam are driving the trade that has no "significant" end market in the United States. Wildlife advocates say that over the last decade, rhino horn has become a must-have luxury item for some Vietnamese nouveau riche, alongside Gucci bags and expensive Maybach cars. */*

“In Hanoi, Vietnamese buy rhino horn on the streets of the city's bustling old quarter, where a traditional medicine dealer recently told the AP that the average prescription costs $10. Hanoi doctors report that some of their clients take the powder as a supplement to western medicines, believing it cures fever and other common ailments. Others use it as a last-ditch effort against cancer. Nguyen Huu Truong, a doctor at Hanoi's Center for Allergy Clinical Immunology, said a handful of patients visit him each year complaining of rashes he links to rhino horn consumption. "Many Vietnamese believe that anything expensive is good, but if you're going to spend a lot of money on rhino horn, you might as well bite your nails," he said. Rhino horns are composed of keratin, a protein found in human hair and fingernails. */*

“Giang, the young Vietnamese woman who regularly uses rhino horn to prevent hangovers, says she's unfazed by doctors' assessments of the substance's efficacy and doesn't care to know how her father acquired the horn. Experts say some rhino horns passing through Vietnam are fakes, and the AP couldn't verify the authenticity of Giang's horn, which she grinds on a plate with a rough finish made specifically for the task. She ingests the liquefied form when she has allergic reactions or after tippling on too much top-shelf liquor. Because Giang only takes rhino horn shots once or twice every three months, she estimates her horn will last another 10 to 15 years. But once her stash is depleted, there may not be any rhinos left on earth to satisfy her craving. */*

Rhino Horn Market and Vietnam


Mike Ives wrote in Associated Press “Between 2006 and 2008, three diplomats at the Vietnamese Embassy in Pretoria were linked to embarrassing rhino trafficking scandals - including one caught on tape. In February, US agents busted an alleged interstate rhino horn trafficking syndicate with Vietnamese-American ringleaders. According to a court affidavit obtained by The Associated Press, Felix Kha, one of the alleged traffickers arrested in the recent US bust, allegedly travelled to China 12 times between 2004 and 2011 and to Vietnam five times last year. [Source: Mike Ives, Associated Press , April 4, 2012 */*]

"There are still horns going into China but Vietnam is driving the increase in poaching for horns," said Chris R Shepherd, deputy regional director for Southeast Asia at the wildlife advocacy group Traffic. "Vietnamese authorities really need to step up their efforts to find out who is behind horn trafficking ... and put them out of business." Vietnam wiped out its own last known Javan rhinoceros in 2010, despite the country's earlier efforts to protect it. The last of the population was found dead in a national park, shot through the leg with its horn hacked off. */*

“Tran Dang Trung, who manages a zoo outside Hanoi that imported four white rhinos from South Africa, said he worries for the animals' safety even though the zoo has 24-hour security. "If thieves wanted to kill the animals and steal their valuable parts, they could," Trung said recently outside the rhinos' basketball court-sized outdoor pen.” */*

Rhino Horn Daggers in Yemen


Many rhino horns end in up Yemen where they are made in handles for special daggers, called jambiyya, that can cost several thousand dollars each. These daggers are the ultimate status symbol for a Yemeni man. For a long time only rich elite could afford them but beginning in the 1960s many Yemenis began working in neighboring Saudi Arabia, and earned to afford them.

It is estimated that 80 percent of all of Yemeni men wear daggers. Rhino horn is considered the best material. Ordinary ones are made from water-buffalo or cow horn. Omanis also use rhino horn daggers

Some estimates that show that about half off all rhino horns from poached rhinoceroses in Africa ended up in Yemen, many via middlemen in Burundi.

Yemeni demand in the 1970s fueled the initial increase in rhino horn prices and the first wave of poaching, and for a while legal rhino horn sales. The price for a kilogram of horn jumped from US$35 a kilogram in 1974 to US$500 in 1979. An average of eight tons a year of rhino horn a year was sold to Yemen between 1972 and 1979---at a cost of some 22,000 rhino lives.

Asian demand in the 1980s fueled further increase in rhino horn prices and another wave of poaching. One of the biggest factors bringing about the sharp decline in the number of rhinoceros has been the rising income in Asians. Many more people in countries like China, Korea, and Taiwan. who couldn’t before, could suddenly afford expensive rhinoceros medicines, which has created more demand and caused prices to rise on the supply end.

Rhino Horn Trade in Southeast Asia


Karl Ammann wrote in Natural History magazine, “On the last trip we also extended our survey to some of the main towns in Laos. We concluded that some of the key dealers there used the even more relaxed enforcement regime in Laos to import rhino horn and export the product, without any problems, to neighboring China and Vietnam. Again we found rhino horn offered in a range of outlets. With one exception, it all was said to be from Asian animals, with many of the sellers insisting there were still Javan and Sumatran rhinos in the so-called hill tribe areas of Laos. Actually, it is doubtful that there are any rhinos left in Laos today. Any genuine Asian horn comes from India and Nepal via Myanmar and the Mekong River. The last indigenous Vietnamese rhino was declared to have perished shortly before our first visit. An exception to the Asian rule was one purported African horn. While a fairly good imitation, it incorporated features of what we also saw in the Asian horns, and as such it was evident that whoever produced it had not seen many real African horns. [Source: Karl Ammann, Natural History magazine, September/ October 2012 ***]

So-called rhino horn is openly available not just in Traditional Chinese Medicine shops, but also in some jewelry outlets and souvenir markets generally visited by tourists. We did not verify a single case of active enforcement of laws against wildlife trade, or of any prosecutions of hunters or dealers. A dealer in northern Vietnam told us that a drug enforcement unit had recently visited him and taken some of his horn, telling him that he would be paid later—a sign of corruption in law enforcement. Of course, a lot of dealers know they are dealing with fake horn products, and as such consider themselves to be “legal.” ***

“Dealers did not necessarily have rhino horn on hand, but often assured us that they could procure it. Prices quoted at the wholesale level to buy a whole or a large chunk of a horn, based on weight, were pretty uniformly $40,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) for Asian horn and $20,000 for African horn. (Asian horns are much smaller than the African ones, yet it requires the same amount of work to bring down an animal and transport the horn.) More recently, though, we heard of a dealer wanting $50,000 per kilogram of African horn. ***

Traditional Chinese Medicine outlets do trade in small quantities, and then rhino horn becomes a retail product, and the prices go up. For example, in Chinatown in Jakarta, for about $50, we bought a sample packaged in a small glass vial that officially stated the weight to be 0.3 grams. A kilogram, at that price, would bring in more than $165,000. With imitation products, more flexibility existed in negotiations (and the product might be handled with less concern: in one case a sample of horn was cut for us from a bigger piece with a hammer and chisel, with bits flying all over the shop). ***

The grinding plates, too, have now gone “upscale.” The latest accessory is a motorized contraption. The grinding plate is made from an imported Japanese clay (believed to be less toxic) and mounted on a rotating platform operated by a supposedly Japanese motor. The piece of horn is fixed above the plate in a type of metal vise and, with the machine turned on, lowered to the grinding surface. It is ground with or without the addition of water. The pamphlet included with the very fancy packaging promises that rhino horn can cure otherwise incurable diseases. ***

The main import-export dealers are well-established businessmen involved in all kinds of related activities. One key Laotian importer hands out a business card showing that he is the head of the chamber of commerce for his district and the deputy head of certain community associations. One of his other operations is a macaque breeding farm, but many of the monkeys he sells as “captive bred” are actually imports, caught in the wild in Thailand and Cambodia. Most are exported to the United States for medical research. He is also about to expand his tiger farm. Dealers on this level often hire “mules,” just as in the drug trade, to get the merchandise to their headquarters. If anything should go wrong at the international level they can disassociate themselves from any such transaction. They deal with the product once it is safely past the border. They seem to have little to worry about, however. According to a maker of the grinding machines, whole horn is mostly transferred from African countries to Vietnam by foreign delegations, whose luggage is not inspected. As a test, I recently bought a well-done imitation horn from a U.S. store that supplies all kinds of skulls and bones, and transported the product openly in my checked baggage across half a dozen international borders, expecting somebody to detect the shape on an X-ray machine and question me. It never happened.

Rhino Horn Trade in Vietnam

Karl Ammann wrote in Natural History magazine, “Our survey took us to Traditional Chinese Medicine shops in the Old Town of Hanoi. When it came to rhino horn, we were clearly told that it did not have any kind of aphrodisiac qualities, which many Westerners assume must be the reason the product is valued in Asia. (We were offered alternatives, however.) Instead we were told that it reduced fever and cleansed the body, especially after bouts of overconsumption of alcohol, food, and drugs. In the course of our investigations, we met dealers who said the product could be beneficial in the treatment of a variety of other ailments, ranging from epilepsy, hepatitis, high blood pressure, and rash to snakebite, the bite of a rabid dog, and cancer. But most were more reserved in their claims. [Source:Karl Ammann, Natural History magazine, September/ October 2012 ***]

“Since this was just at the start of the national lunar new year (Tet) festivities, one dealer invited us to his family quarters above his shop for a glass of rice wine and then freely showed us tiger bone cake, claws, a rhino horn, elephant skin, and other items. After we drank some of the rice wine and again bought a very small sample of what the dealer represented as rhino horn, the lady of the house opened a brown plastic bag and offered us all a sampling of powdered horn, which she instructed us to sprinkle into our rice wine. She assured us that no matter how much we drank during the holidays, we would not have a hangover. The dealer explained that rhino horn was only for the very rich, and our guide backed that up with some anecdotes of his own, illustrating that the demand on the Vietnam side was already high and increasing in line with the increasing affluence of some of the elite. Handing out rhino horn had become one way to illustrate that one had “arrived.” Our hosts also sold us the tool with which to grind down our own piece of horn into powder—a ceramic plate with a rough inner surface. A rhino drawing decorated the rim. (When we returned in 2012 to the same family for the same new year’s celebrations, the wife was on her own. Her husband had died of liver cancer—a result of too much drinking, she believed. So much for the rhino horn cure.) ***

We confirmed the nature of the demand for rhino horn over and over again when talking to other dealers. Many did not want to discuss the sale of small samples, but were only interested in negotiating big items priced in the tens of thousands of dollars. They were accustomed to dealing with people of means, not tourists looking for a few grams. The possession of rhino horn is a status symbol like a Mercedes or diamond ring. Wall-mounted trophies, including many African ungulate horns (set on molded plastic heads covered in cow skin), also belong in this category. We were told that rhino horn pieces were also used to bribe officials and were offered generally as a present to people in power. Since the original trip in 2010 I have been back three more times to Laos and Vietnam, and I am convinced that Vietnam is today one of the key end-consumer countries for rhino horn, tiger bone, and bear bile products. ***

Fake Versus Real Rhino Horn


Karl Ammann wrote in Natural History magazine, “With each trip it became more and more evident that the rhino horn on sale was mostly fake. When subjected to DNA analysis, the samples from the first trip all turned out to be pieces of water buffalo horn. So on subsequent trips my translators and I started to become more discriminating, telling dealers that we had been taken for a ride with buffalo horn in the past, and we wanted to see and discuss prices for the real stuff. [Source: Karl Ammann, Natural History magazine, September/ October 2012 ***]

“All fakes: A water buffalo horn was sold as a rhino horn by a dealer in Hanoi. A small Asian horn was purchased in Vientiane (it is made of bovine horn). A boxed vial of rhino horn powder, sold by a pharmacist in Jakarta, turned out to be ground from saiga antelope horn.”

“Our local translator got on the Internet and found thirty-five dealers advertising horn. We made appointments and met with some of them. By now we knew that, as a foreigner, I was looked at with suspicion. The concern was not so much about enforcement being triggered by offering us a product that was illegal under national and international laws. (At most that might necessitate paying a bribe.) Rather, dealers figured that we were not big players who would be willing to spend thousands of dollars for a whole horn or a big piece. At this stage...we had now refined our cover story. Our local investigator explained that he was looking for horn for a friend in China’s Yunnan province who had been cheated with fake horn, and he only wanted very small samples at this point to have it checked out. He then would come back for more if it turned out to be the real thing. ***

“A majority of the horns on sale in retail settings were fake: probably 90 percent of end consumers would unknowingly purchase products made of water buffalo or other bovine horn. The horn on offer tends to be either cut slabs or tips, indicating that it mostly comes from polished and modified water buffalo horns. When asked for the base of a horn, which is easier to identify, dealers typically claim that, because it is the most valuable part, it was sold first, so only the tips are left. We even filmed in a factory where people prepared the tips of water buffalo horn to make them look more polished and more like the tips of rhino horns. ***

“In fact, a wide range of methods are available to the knowledgeable to test the authenticity of a piece of horn, apart from analyzing its DNA. These include noting the lighter weight compared to bovine horn; judging the density of the material when cutting with a metal saw; shining a bright beam through part of the horn (to see the color and texture); observing the color of the “milky” solution when powder is mixed with water or rice wine; tapping the material with a fingernail and analyzing the sound; burning a corner to test the smell; and pulling off some individual fibers (this last seems one of the most reliable ways to identify real rhino horn). Still, it is something of a guessing game when it comes to pieces of horn (with an intact horn it is a different story). ***

“Because they are small, Asian rhino horn fakes are much more realistic, since the base is generally imitated as well, but there are also obvious fakes. Wealthy customers who buy whole horns have trusted experts doing the verification for them. These players view rhino horn as a status symbol and possibly also as an investment opportunity, since prices are bound to go up as the supply gets more restricted.” ***

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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