The sweet sound of saving rhinos – with song
Don Pinnock
21 April, 2014

In the scramble to save our rhinos, what generally comes to mind is a mix of camouflage-clad soldiers, high-powered rifles, tracker dogs and deadly force against ruthless poachers with bullets, machetes and no pity. That’s been the response so far and it’s not working. Each year the death toll rises and last year it exceeded 1,000 hacked-off horns and rotting carcases. By the end of 2014 it could be worse. If rhinos are to survive, a new plan is urgently required – and one might just be forming. 

That plan may be in the hands of a talented duo: a rare Vietnamese soprano and the young wunderkind at her side. Here’s why: Most poached rhino horn ends up in Vietnam, a country of 90-million people. Among the elite who can afford it, gifting medically useless rhino keratin is a status issue and the mythology is that it cures a raft of illnesses and impotence. Reducing rhino poaching from the supply side merely increases the horn’s value and status. The only lasting way to curb the killing is to convince Vietnamese not to buy it.

That’s where songstress Thu Minh and singer-songwriter Thanh Bui come in. Minh is described as Vietnam’s Celine Dion, with millions of fans. She has a rare soprano range (D3 to C7 and a beltnote of B5), singing in both English and Vietnamese, and the poise of the ballet dancer she once was.

Her colleague and friend Thanh was born in Australia of Vietnamese boat-people immigrants and dedicated his life to music. At 25 he reached the Top 10 of Australian Idols and became a sensation in both Vietnam and the country’s large international diaspora.

Their combined influence as role models in Vietnam is vast (between them they have three million Facebook followers), but they’re far more than pop idols. Minh was alerted to the plight of rhinos in Africa and realised Vietnamese had no idea about the deadly impact of their fashion tastes. She and Thanh, who has written a number of her hit songs, decided to see for themselves.

Assisted by the Wilderness Foundation in South Africa, this week they toured several reserves in the Eastern Cape and at Shamwari they took part in an exercise to dart and collar a rhino.

“For me, the word rhino just meant medicine,” Minh said. “But when I put my hand on its body I felt its warmth. I felt its heart beating. It was an amazing, living thing. Tears were coming down my cheeks. We can’t let creatures like this be killed. There are so few left.”

Photo: Thu Minh and Thanh Bui assisting the vet after a rhino darting. (Don Pinnock)

In Southern Africa, intensive rhino poaching began in 2008 and is now averaging nearly three a day. In the first three months of this year, 172 died for their horns. Most of the factors driving the trade are economic. At point of sale, prices for horn range from R650,000 to R780,000 a kilo. Other drivers include poverty in rhino range states, insufficient budgets for protection, corruption, lax penalties and rising incomes in consumer countries.

On the African supply side, poaching syndicates organise shooters, transporters, bribes, the occasional private reserve owner, vets, container agents and all manner of undercover mules. The only real hope for rhinos is reducing the demand, and that’s what Bui and Minh will attempt through their music.

“Most people in Vietnam believe rhino horn is an amazing cure,” said Minh, “and the more expensive it gets the more interesting it becomes. Rhino horn has become a symbol of wealth.”

According to Thanh, that wealth requirement is a point of leverage. “We can reach them through their children, who listen to our music. We understand them and can inspire them to make a difference. We’ll reach out, share the story, tell them what’s happening and ask them to do the right thing for Vietnam and rhinos.”

“The whole world is looking on in horror at what we’re doing to rhinos,” Minh added. It has to stop for the sake of rhinos and the honour of Vietnam. I’ve come here and touched a rhino and I know the real story about its horn. It gives me confidence to tell it back home. It’s a conversation I’m going to have with my fans, my audience. This trip has made me a rhino ambassador.”

It’s a big ask for two young singers. But they have the power to take their message of demand reduction to the heart of the problem. Their goal, Minh said as they set off for the airport to head back East, was to get Vietnamese to realise that the future of rhino was in their hands and that the rest of the world was watching.

Main photo: Thanh Bui and Thu Minh (Don Pinnock)

For the article on the Daily Maverick click here.