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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Rhino Horn Trade

The story at the consumer end

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In 2009, poachers shot and killed the world's last Vietnamese rhinoceros, a subspecies of the Javan rhino, according to a report from the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The Javan rhino is the world's most imperiled rhino species, with now only around 50 of the animals surviving in a single park on its namesake island in Indonesia. Many experts say poachers are to blame. The rhinos are illegally killed for their horns, which are ground into traditional medicines used throughout eastern Asia, mainly China, and more recently, Vietnam. However, many studies have shown there to be no medicinal benefits to consuming rhino horn.

Two years ago, I was filming with a German TV team in a new casino town on the Laos/China border. While we walked the streets, we found two baby clouded leopards hidden in a carton box. I took them out and played with them while the camera was running before the owner started protesting and put an end to it.

In the meantime, our translator was approached by a lorry driver, who had his truck parked nearby and had witnessed the commotion. He told our guide that if we were interested in these cats, there were two tiger cubs a few hours away that were for sale. He gave us the address in case we were interested, and we went off to find the place toward the center of Laos. We got there and were told that the two cubs had been sold to a Vietnamese buyer two days earlier for $4,000.

I realized that wildlife traders in these parts weren't just dealing in one product line, but any wildlife items that would offer a nice return. It also became clear that irrespective of tigers, ivory or rhino horn products, the traders we would meet were all potential sources of information for all of these items. So while trying to track down the tiger cubs, we also started looking into rhino horn and its prices, availability and usage.

We then decided to do a survey of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shops in the old town of Hanoi. When it came to rhino horn, we were clearly told that it didn't have any kind of aphrodisiac qualities (we were offered alternatives) and didn't really cure cancer, which was a rumor that had been going around, but that it did reduce fever and cleansed the body, especially after bouts of overconsumption of alcohol, food and drugs. Since this was at the start of the national New Year's festivities, one dealer invited us to his family quarters above the shop for a glass of rice wine and freely showed us tiger bone cake, claws, a rhino horn and elephant skin, among other items. After drinking some rice wine and again buying a very small sample of what he presented as rhino horn (the top part of it), the lady of the house came with a brown plastic bag, which she pulled from a top shelf, and offered us a sampling of powdered horn, which she instructed us to sprinkle into our rice wine. She explained that, irrespective of our alcohol consumption during the holidays, we would never have a hangover.

The man of the house explained that rhino horn was only for the very rich, and our guide backed it up with some anecdotes illustrating that the demand on the Vietnam side was already high and increasing with the rising affluence of some of the elite. Handing out rhino horn had become one way to illustrate that an individual "had arrived." Our hosts also then sold us the ceramic plate, with its rough inner surface and a rhino drawing on the rim, as the tool to grind down our piece of horn into powder.

We later confirmed this trend in demand repeatedly when talking to dealers who didn't want to discuss the sale of small samples. They were only interested in negotiating big-piece items in the thousands of dollars, making it clear that they were used to dealing with people of means and not tourists looking for a few grams. Possession of rhino horn was considered a status symbol, like a Mercedes or diamond ring. We were told rhino horn pieces were also used to bribe officials and offered as presents to people in power.

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