VIETNAM AND THE RHINO HORN TRADE

HIGH DEMAND FOR RHINO HORN 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. */*

Endangered Rhinos

20080311-rhino_medicine wwf.jpg
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.

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.

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 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. ***

Combating the Rhino Horn Trade in 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 */*]

“Laws in Vietnam surrounding the business of importing horns are murky and crackdowns are rare despite government pledges to root out traffickers. Officially, no more than 60 horns are legally imported into Vietnam as trophies bagged from South African game farms each year, but international wildlife experts have estimated the actual number of trophy horns taken by Vietnamese nationals from South Africa each year may exceed 100. */*

“Earlier this week, the South African government said it was working with the Vietnamese to stop the potential abuse of hunting permits. Hanoi has also been asked to conduct inspections to make sure rhino trophies imported from South Africa still remain in the hunters' possession. It's impossible to track how other rhino horns are entering Vietnam, wildlife advocates say, but they point to local media reports suggesting Vietnamese diplomats are implicated in the international trade that's been largely banned since 1976. */*

“In 2006, a diplomat at Vietnam's South African Embassy was arrested for trafficking rhino horn, while another was filmed two years later trading the substance outside the mission's gates. A third diplomat was also questioned that same year after 18kg of rhino horn was found in his car outside a casino. In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Luong Thanh Nghi said those incidents reflected badly upon Vietnam's image, and that the diplomats all faced disciplinary measures.” */*

Homegrown Efforts to Combat the Rhino Horn Trade in Vietnam

"There is a small group who have the money for rhino horn. We need to get out scientific evidence to show the people of Vietnam that it doesn't work," Vo Tuan Nhan, vice chairman of the Vietnamese parliament's science and environment committee said.

On the efforts of the Vietnamese group Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), a representative with savetherhino.org wrote: “II met with Ms Dung who is the operations director at ENV and is in charge of the awareness programme in illegal wildlife trade...and then I was introduced to the rest of their 35 strong team. The team do an absolutely fantastic job and came across as very professional, knowledgeable and welcoming to me...Their work includes raising awareness about wildlife crimes to the Vietnamese general public, they manage a wildlife crime hotline, they carry out investigations into wildlife crimes and work with authorities and manage and deliver campaigns in Vietnam. They have a fantastic volunteers programme that includes around 3,800 volunteers all over Vietnam, their volunteers get involved in reporting wildlife crime and awareness raising campaigns. [Source: savetherhino.org, August 2013 <*>]

“ENV have done very successful campaigns in the past on reducing the demand for bear bile in Vietnam. Bear bile is an illegal activity but unfortunately there has been very little law enforcement and so the practise has continued but through the work of ENV this practise has been vastly reduced in Vietnam. ENV have been working on reducing the demand for rhino horn since 2012. I then travelled with Tran Tuyet Minh, who is a Wildlife Trade Programme Manager at ENV, via her moped to Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street which is one of the main streets in Hanoi for TCM shops. Each shop seems to sell the exact same thing as the one next door. <*>

“With Ms Minh’s help I was able to go into many of the shops and take photos and ask questions of the shop owners. Rhino horn was not openly being sold in any of these shops (there was however signs for bear bile which is illegal). ENV had previously visited all of these shops and asked if they would place signs saying rhino horn is illegal. About one quarter agreed, however most of the signs were tucked away at the back of the shop.” <*>

The owners of the shops “explained that TCM customers mostly want treatment for their general good health a bit like taking vitamin tablets. People don’t generally come in and ask for a specific product, they tell the practitioner what their problem is and they will diagnose what they need. It takes many year to train to become a TCM doctor and they are well respected. Customers tend to choose which TCM shop to go into through a recommendation or they already trust and know the shop, trust is important to their trade. Some of the practitioners have been asked by customers for rhino horn but all denied ever selling it”. <*>

Later “I attended a workshop organised by Naomi Doak (Traffic Vietnam) and facilitated by PSI who are a global change behaviour agency who specialise in changing people’s behaviour in relation to health issues.The workshop was also attended by members of the Vietnamese government and WWF. The workshop analysed the two consumer surveys that had been commissioned by WWF and Traffic in Vietnam in 2013. The aim of these surveys was then help to plan a targeted behaviour change campaign to reduce the demand for rhino horn. The workshop identified three key rhino horn user groups and the steps to running a campaign to change the key user groups behaviour. It also looked at who would be the best type of ambassador for the campaign. Many of the participants in the workshop were Vietnamese nationals who were fighting to stop the illegal wildlife trade. They explained that when growing up as children you were not taught much about wildlife and why it is important to protect it. Therefore, it isn't something that people consider. Their focus is generally on doing the best for their families. <*>

It was very exciting to able to be involved at this stage in such a great project but there is still a long way to go to make this campaign happen including raising funds for the project. SRI are starting to fundraise for the campaign as we believe it is one of the best ways to tackle rhino poaching occurring throughout Africa and Asia and you can be involved by helping support this project. See more about the work being done on demand reduction here.” Vietnam “is a country that seems to have somehow lost its relationship with wildlife and I can't help but worry that as more and more people are able to afford rhino horn this will have a negative impact on our rhinos and other wildlife. The demand for wildlife products only seems to be increasing. However, there are positive signs. The young people of Vietnam do seem to be changing and do want to protect wildlife but many species don't have enough time to wait for several generations before a culture fully changes. The work that ENV, Traffic Vietnam, the Vietnamese government and other organisations around the world, including SRI, do in Vietnam in the next couple of years is going to play a major role in the survival of so many species including our rhinos!” <*>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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