Parallels
1:05 pm
Mon May 13, 2013

Vietnam's Appetite For Rhino Horn Drives Poaching In Africa

Originally published on Tue May 14, 2013 3:42 pm

Africa is facing a growing epidemic: the slaughter of rhinos.

So far this year, South Africa has lost more than 290 rhinos — an average of at least two a day. That puts the country on track to set yet another record after poachers killed 668 rhinos in 2012.

Behind the rise in killings are international criminal syndicates and global economic change. Poachers have gone high-tech, using helicopters, silencers and night vision goggles to meet the growing demand for rhino horn in East Asia, especially Vietnam.

Some newly rich Vietnamese believe rhino horn — used in traditional Chinese medicine — can now treat all kinds of illnesses. Last year in Vietnam, rhino horn sold for up to $1,400 an ounce, which is about the price of gold.

The power of East Asian demand was on stark display last year after South African authorities confiscated a videotape hunters made of an illegal rhino kill.

In the video, a hunter fires on a rhino as it shades itself beneath a tree in a game reserve. The rhino tries to escape, emitting a high-pitched cry, before eventually being brought down by steady gunfire.

In the next scene — yes, the poachers kept taping — South African hunters and Southeast Asian wildlife traffickers count stacks of money to pay for the horn. Steve Galster, executive director of the anti-trafficking Freeland Foundation in Bangkok, obtained a copy of the tape and explains: "They will be buying this horn for tens of thousands of dollars in South Africa and selling some sets of horns over in Southeast Asia for up to $1 million."

Wealth And Medical Misinformation Drive Killing

Conservationists say much of Africa's rhino horn ends up in Vietnam. On a single day in January, authorities detained two Vietnamese men in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, trying to smuggle a total of almost 60 pounds of African horn worth a combined $1.5 million.

"The smuggling of rhino horn has been on our radar since 2006," says Douglas Hendrie, a technical adviser to Education for Nature, a Vietnamese nongovernmental organization.

Hendrie says demand has been driven by sudden wealth and medicinal misinformation, including Internet rumors that rhino horn can cure cancer. In surveys, users say they believe rhino horn improves general health, prevents illness and treats about 30 different ailments, including hangovers.

"Like a fad, it's become popular," says Hendrie, who says using rhino horn is now a status symbol. "It's the thing to do. It's gifted. What a great gift for your boss, or ... government official."

That's how Bui Thanh, a retired official who used to approve construction projects in the Vietnamese government, got his stash of rhino horn. Bui began taking rhino horn to recover from drinking binges with contractors.

"Every time I drank alcohol, I'd go home and grind the horn and drink it," says Bui, a 65-year-old grandfather of two. "An hour later, I'd throw up and feel sober again."

Sitting at his breakfast table, he unwraps a piece of newspaper to reveal a small, gray block of rhino horn he received as a gift. Bui pours water into a specially made bowl with a rough bottom and grinds the block of horn into a milky, white liquid.

The grinding creates an odor that smells like burned hair. That's because rhino horn contains keratin, the main component in fingernails and hair. He says that as the value of rhino horn grew, it became a kind of currency.

"People use rhino horn as gifts to trade for a better job or trade for some benefits," says Bui. "This piece used to cost $100 in the past and now it costs $1,000."

Rhino horn prices are so high, some medicine shops sell fake rhino horn made from buffalo horn. Bui says some people even make rhino horn out of industrial plastic.

High Profit, Low Risk

Given the staggering price both consumers and the rhinos themselves are paying, does rhino horn actually do anything? Vu Quoc Trung, a traditional medicine doctor who works out of a Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi, thinks it has some limited value.

"According to ancient medicine books, there are only three uses for rhino horn," says Vu. "The first is to decrease temperature, the second is to detoxify and the third is to improve blood quality."

Contrary to popular myth in the West, rhino horn was never traditionally viewed as an aphrodisiac.

As for all the other ailments some doctors here prescribe it for — such as cancer — Vu doesn't buy it.

"They do it for their profit, for their business," he says. "Personally, I have seen a lot of rhino horn, a lot of my patients have brought it here, but I don't see any special effects."

In fact, after China banned the rhino horn trade in 1993, it was removed from traditional medicine books in the country.

As with most illegal products, rhino horn's real demand isn't easy to gauge, but Bat Trang, a porcelain-making village outside Hanoi, offers some clues. This is where Bui bought his rhino-grinding bowl.

Nguyen Thi Le Hang owns a factory here that's made rhino bowls for at least the past decade. Nguyen says when she started, some of her best customers were hard-drinking pilots.

"I used to sell 2,000 grinding bowls a month to the airport," says Nguyen, 56, as she crouches on the floor of her shop. "Most pilots are men. They are not very careful with their belongings and they break the bowls all the time."

Last year, Nguyen says, she sold 10,000 bowls.

TRAFFIC, a global organization that tracks the wildlife trade, says no other country has a grinding-bowl industry like Vietnam's. Naomi Doak, the group's coordinator in Hanoi, says the rhino horn trade has flourished here because there isn't a lot of enforcement.

"Here is something that is high profit and low risk," says Doak. "If you get caught, you might get a fine, you might get a slap on the wrist. That's it."

Efforts To Change Public Opinion

Vietnam insists it strictly prohibits the illegal trade in wild animals. Last year, it signed a memorandum of understanding with South Africa to cooperate on the issue. Conservationists think the key to reducing demand is education.

Nguyen Quan, who works in the wildlife crimes unit of Education for Nature, uses public awareness campaigns to debunk rhino horn myths. He tells anyone who will listen that rhino horn is basically a grossly overpriced placebo.

"We have a kind of banner saying rhino horn and people's nails are not different," Nguyen says. "So instead of using rhino horn, why don't we just chew our nails?"

South Africa is home to more than 20,000 rhinos, the vast majority of the global rhino population. Getting people in Vietnam to focus on a creature so far away isn't easy. Bui, the government official who took rhino horn for hangovers, said protecting the animal isn't his problem.

"It should be the responsibility of the South African government. It can't be Vietnam's," he says, reflexively. "In Vietnam, if people have money, they have the right to buy it."

Some rhino horn users, though, seem to be having a change of heart. A woman named Duong, 50, who works in international trade, says she used to take rhino horn as a general health tonic, but found it didn't do much, so she stopped using it.

Now, she feels guilty.

"I bought this horn a very long time ago, about seven years ago, and since then, I've heard a lot about rare and precious animals being killed," she says, sitting in her living room with a flat-screen TV and Italian marble floors. "I feel really sorry about that and I would not buy any animal products again."

How many others rhino horn users here are coming to the same conclusion is anyone's guess, but the rhino's survival may depend on it.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. In South Africa just this year, more than 290 rhinoceros have been slaughtered. That's a record pace, about two rhinos killed each day; and poachers have gone high-tech, using helicopters, silencers and night-vision goggles. The killings are driven by global economic change. Demand for rhino's horns is rising in East Asia as more people there become wealthy.

We're going to hear about poaching in Africa, in the next few days. But first, NPR's Frank Langfitt takes us to Vietnam, where an economic boom could threaten the rhino survival.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: A poacher takes aim at a rhino as it shades itself beneath a tree in a South African game reserve, and fires.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

LANGFITT: The poacher was so brazen, he actually videotaped this kill last year. A warning: What follows is very upsetting to hear. As the rhino tries to escape, it begins to cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRIES)

LANGFITT: The poacher fires again...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

LANGFITT: ...and again...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

LANGFITT: ...until the rhino falls on its side and dies.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Another scene - yes, the poachers kept videotaping - shows the South African hunters and Southeast Asian wildlife traffickers counting stacks of money to pay for the horn. Steve Galster got the videotape from authorities in South Africa. Galster works for the Bangkok-based Freeland Foundation, which battles wildlife trafficking.

STEVE GALSTER: They'll be buying this horn for tens of thousands of dollars, in South Africa; and selling some sets of horns over in Southeast Asia, for up to $1 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET TRAFFIC)

LANGFITT: Conservationists say much of the rhino horn ends up here, in Vietnam. Right now, I'm standing in Hanoi, in front of the old French opera house. And if you look across the street, you can see a Gucci boutique. It's kind of a sign of the times, and an indication of how much demand there is for luxury goods, including rhino horn.

DOUGLAS HENDRIE: The smuggling of rhino horn has been on our radar since about 2006.

LANGFITT: Douglas Hendrie works with Education for Nature, a Vietnamese nongovernmental organization. He says demand for rhino horn here has been driven by sudden wealth and medicinal misinformation, including Internet rumors that it can cure cancer.

HENDRIE: The biggest values associated with rhino horn consumption in Vietnam were consumption for status and general health, for preventative medicine, treatment of cancer - the side effects of chemotherapy, and things like that - detoxification, dealing with hangovers. There were - there was a list of about - I'd say about 30 other medical ailments that some people believe that rhino horn was good for treating.

LANGFITT: Hendrie says rhino horn is now a status symbol.

HENDRIE: Like a fad, it's become popular. It's the thing to do. It's gifted, which is - what a great gift for your, you know, your boss or your government official, or something.

LANGFITT: That's how Bui Thanh got his stash of rhino horn. He's a retired official who used to approve construction projects in the Vietnamese government. Bui began taking rhino horn to recover from drinking binges with contractors.

BUI THANH: (Through translator) If I didn't drink, they'd force me to. By drinking, I showed enthusiasm for future cooperation. Every time I drank alcohol, I'd go home and grind the horn, and drink it. An hour later, I'd throw up and feel sober again.

LANGFITT: Bui is 65, and the grandfather of two. He's wearing a blue-and-white striped polo shirt and jeans. Sitting at his breakfast table, he unwraps a piece of newspaper to reveal a small, gray block of rhino horn he received as a gift. Bui pours water into a specially made bowl with a rough bottom, and grinds some of the horn into a milky white liquid.

It smells like burned hair, which makes sense. Rhino horn mostly contains keratin, the main component in fingernails and hair. Bui says that as the value of rhino horn grew, it became a kind of currency.

BUI: (Through translator) People use rhino horn as gifts to trade for a better job, or trade for some benefits. That is a gift, not bribery. That's one of the reasons why the price of rhino horn has risen many times. For example, this piece used to cost $100 in the past. Now, it costs a thousand.

LANGFITT: Rhino horn prices are so high, some medicine shops sell fake rhino horn made from buffalo horn. Again, Bui.

BUI: (Through translator) Nowadays, some people even have the technology to make rhino horn from industrial plastic, and it's destructive to people's health. If people want to buy rhino horn, they have to buy from trusted sources.

LANGFITT: Actual demand for rhino horn is hard to gauge. But Bat Trang, a porcelain-making village outside Hanoi, offers some clues. This is where Mr. Bui, the government official, bought his rhino grinding bowl. Nguyen Thi Le Hang owns a factory here that makes them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLATTER)

LANGFITT: That's me, bumping into some of the porcelain that blankets her shop floor. Nguyen says when she started, some of her best customers were hard-drinking pilots.

NGUYEN THI LE HANG: (Through translator) I used to sell 2,000 grinding bowls a month, to the airport. Most pilots are men. They are not very careful with their belongings, and they break the bowls all the time.

LANGFITT: Last year, Nguyen says, she sold 10,000 bowls.

NAOMI DOAK: My name is Naomi Doak, and I'm the coordinator of the TRAFFIC Southeast Asia-Greater Mekong Programme, based in Hanoi.

LANGFITT: TRAFFIC is a global organization that tracks the wildlife trade. Doak says no other country has a grinding bowl industry like Vietnam's. And she says the rhino horn trade flourishes because there isn't a lot of enforcement.

DOAK: Here is something that is high profit and low risk. If you get caught, you might get a fine; you might get a slap on the wrist. That's it.

LANGFITT: Vietnam insists it strictly prohibits the illegal trade in wild animals. And last year, it signed a memorandum of understanding with South Africa to cooperate on the issue. Conservationists think the key to reducing demand here, though, is education. Nguyen Quan works in the wildlife crimes unit of Education for Nature. He uses public awareness campaigns to debunk rhino horn myths.

NGUYEN QUAN: We talk with people about rhino horn, and that the rhino horn has no effect at all. Rhino horn is not a magical medicine. We have - kind of the banner saying that rhino horn and the people nail is not different. So instead of using rhino horn, why don't we just - chewing our nail?

LANGFITT: South Africa is home to more than 20,000 rhinos, the vast majority of the global rhino population. Getting people in Vietnam to focus on a creature so far away, isn't easy. Bui, the government official who took rhino horn for hangovers, said protecting the animal isn't his problem.

BUI: (Through translator) It should be the responsibility of the South African government. It can't be Vietnam's. In Vietnam, if people have money, they have the right to buy it.

LANGFITT: Some rhino horn users, though, seem to be having a change of heart. A woman named Duong, who works in international trade, said she used to take rhino horn as a general health tonic, but over time found it didn't do much. So she stopped using it. Now, she feels guilty.

DUONG: (Through translator) I bought this horn a very long time ago - about seven years ago; and since then, I've heard a lot about rare and precious animals being killed. I feel really sorry about that. I wouldn't buy any animal products again.

LANGFITT: How many other rhino horn users here are coming to the same conclusion, is anyone's guess. But the rhino horn survival may depend on it.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program