Let’s get real about the trade in rhino horn
Adam Cruise
14 November, 2014

A couple of weeks ago a report came out announcing that in 2014 the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam had dropped significantly when compared to 2013 – by 38% to be exact. The survey was conducted by polling firm Nielsen on behalf of the Humane Society International (HSI), an animal protection organisation, and the Vietnam CITES Management Authority (MA). Ostensibly, this is very good news… but why is there a feeling that something isn’t right?

HSI has declared they “engaged stakeholder groups including the 800,000-member Hanoi Women’s Association, the business community, university students, school children, and the scientific community, as well as many leading health experts, to help spread messages against the use of rhino horns”. They also dished out copies of I’m A Little Rhino to young pupils, while advertisements on billboards appeared all over the capital city – at the airport, on the sides of public transport as well in numerous press infomercials explaining that rhino horn is of no medicinal value. The follow-up survey, according to HSI, is proof that these campaigns are paying dividends.

Forgive me for sounding sceptical but if a bespectacled surveyor with a clipboard and pen asked if I was purchasing an illegal product would I say ‘yes’?  And if there was a global campaign to discredit buying rhino horn, I would feel even more disinclined to admit it. Let’s be honest, this is a clandestine business and buyers and sellers are probably more secretive than ever now that the word is out.

There are other obvious faults with this survey. If there has been such a reduction in demand, how come the rate of poaching keeps going up? The Vietnamese government also shows no urgency in cracking down, with one pundit asking how come “there has been no noticeable increase in arrests, prosecutions, or effective punishments directed toward either buyers or dealers?”  The same pundit mentioned that if the government wants to crack down it can, and will. Yet it doesn’t.

However, the biggest concern about this HSI survey is that demand is not really down. Do Quang Tung, director of the Vietnam CITES MA, has stressed that the group could be fabricating a positive message in order to keep the donations flowing, while other observers and investigators have revealed that traders in Vietnam are actively expanding the market for rhino horn.

In its powdered form, rhino horn has been prescribed in south-east Asia for at least two millennia, traditionally to reduce fever and treat a range of maladies. Javan rhinos once roamed over much of the sub-continent but their numbers have not been able to sustain the steady increase of human populations. In 2006 the demand spiked drastically in Vietnam as there was an imaginative claim by traditional healers backed up by the more orthodox medical fraternity that rhino horn could cure cancer. Thus, despite 30 years of oncological study that found the material of little medicinal value, the flood gates on rhino poaching burst open. By 2010 the last Javan rhino in Vietnam had been killed, but by then traders had already turned to Africa for a fresh supply centre in an effort to meet the exploding demand.

This has led authorities worldwide to try tackle the problem. One of the more common responses was to de-horn live rhino. This seemed at first to be a simple solution since one can harvest horn from animals without harming them, much like getting wool from sheep. In fact, it was mooted that rhino could be farmed on a scale that may meet the demand in Vietnam. This method has been rejected by leading economists and conservationists for a variety of issues, not the least of them being the concern that the demand may increase and farming methods are unlikely to match it. Besides, poachers still shot de-horned wild rhino either to hack out the base, which was still worth a small fortune, or simply to avoid wasting time tracking them on the next occasion.

One of the more radical solutions was to make rhino horn valueless by contaminating it. To date around 280 animals have been injected with a contaminate that does not harm the rhino but is toxic to humans if ingested.

That would work if rhino horn was strictly for ingestion. Unfortunately, it seems no longer the case. It has been assumed that the sole reason for Vietnam’s appetite for horn has been exclusively for its healing power. This is certainly HSI’s view, which limited their campaign and survey accordingly. HSI’s Teresa Telecky admitted that the premise of their survey in Vietnam is that rhino horn is used solely as medicine or to improve health.

Other investigations have revealed that rhino horn exclusively for medicinal purposes is a bit passé among serious consumers. Swiss-born Karl Ammann, a renowned award-winning investigative filmmaker, states that rhino horn in Vietnam has for some time been sold in the form of bracelets, necklaces, cups or figurines in much the same way as ivory is manufactured and sold. The powdered medicinal form, Ammann points out, is only sold as a by-product of the carved objects, or it has been substituted with ancilliaries such as water buffalo horn. The latter, Ammann discovered after DNA analysis, has practically saturated the medicinal market. 90% of powdered medicinal products he tested proved to be counterfeit. Average consumers have no access to technology such as DNA testing to verify the authenticity of the powdered products they buy, they simply have to trust the vendor.

This is precisely what critics of legalising rhino horn trade have feared. Illicit traders have expanded the market and, as a result, have generated a greater demand for the product. What’s more, as Do Quang Tung reports, indications show that buying rhino horn is not an exclusively Vietnam phenomenon.

After recently returning from his latest investigative project in Myanmar, Laos, China and Vietnam, Ammann, apart from not seeing any of the acclaimed posters in public spaces that HSI is so proud of, has ascertained that it is Chinese tourists who are bumping up the demand for rhino horn. As with ivory, the Chinese have developed a proclivity for rhino horn as objets d’art. What’s more, they are prepared to travel for it in much the same way they travel to buy worked ivory products in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. These countries, Vietnam among them, are far more lackadaisical with illegal merchandise than China. Guides will take tourists to the factories where the horns are carved so they can see they are buying the genuine product. Ammann claims that 25% of all rhino horn is bought by Chinese tourists, with 60% purchased when they are abroad. This debunks the theory that it’s just the Vietnamese consumer driving the demand.

Furthermore, the tourists don’t seem that concerned about transport logistics or Chinese customs. As Ammann points out: “For China to truly reduce the demand…China would also have to become serious about border controls in the context of wildlife trafficking.” At the moment, Amman says, it’s a free for all. He has filmed the official border post between China and Myanmar with all the uniformed guards in attendance, but just a hundred metres along there’s a hole in the fence where hundreds cross back and forth with impunity. Doubtlessly, it’s the same along the Vietnamese-Chinese border.

Again, as with ivory, both the Chinese and Vietnamese consumers now consider rhino horn either as an investment, a status symbol or, interestingly, as a gift. The gift market, says Ammann, is a particularly fashionable trend. Rhino horn objects are primarily bought as sweeteners for business contracts and other backhanders.

From a trader’s perspective this makes a lot more business sense. Worked rhino horn drives the price up from the raw product in the same way that carved ivory does, or unpolished gold and uncut diamonds that are fashioned into jewellery, coins and watches. Ammann has noted that the price per gram of worked rhino horn has risen to US$100/gram, up from the previous amount of US$65/gram, while the powdered form has dropped to US$40/gram.

This appalling new trend may have begun to develop some time ago but due to the West’s continued preoccupation with the notion of traditional medicine usage, it has been allowed to flourish offstage into a prodigious commerce that makes the trade in traditional medicine pale in comparison. Ammann has accused HSI’s ‘feel-good’ message of being counter-productive as it fails to highlight the real cause of the demand.

The world, therefore, is barking up the wrong tree when it comes to its analysis of the rhino horn trade. HSI may be correct in saying that only 2,6% of Vietnamese purchase rhino horn, down from the previous year of 4,5%, but instead of publicising that demand is down they have inadvertently revealed that the market has shifted into more profitable arenas. Buying rhino horn just for medicinal purposes is no longer fueling the slaughter of rhinos. A radical switch in global strategy is now desperately vital if rhinos are going to survive the remainder of the decade.

Main Photo: (Michael Lorentz)