Tuesday, August 7, 2012
The Rhino Horn Trade
The story at the consumer end
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.
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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