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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Rhino Horn Trade

The story at the consumer end

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Since the original trip in 2010, I've returned three more times to Laos and Vietnam, convinced that the latter is today one of the key end-consumer countries for rhino horn, tiger bone and bear bile products. With each trip, it became more evident that rhino horns on sale appear to be mostly fake (the samples from the first trip, when exposed to DNA analysis, all turned out to be pieces of a water buffalo horn, which are meant to have similar medicinal qualities). So on subsequent trips, my translators and I started to become more discriminating and told dealers that we had been taken for a ride with buffalo horn in the past. We wanted to see and discuss prices for the real stuff. We fixed appointments and met with some of them. However, it had also become clear that, as a foreigner, I was looked at with suspicion even though nobody was worried about facing law enforcement by offering us a product illegal under national and international laws. At this stage, I was also joined by a German print-media journalist, and we sent our local investigator off on his own with a hidden camera to do some negotiations to buy horn. We then reviewed the material with him and wrote down a transcript of what was discussed and recorded.

We had now refined the story. Our local investigator explained that he was looking for horn for a friend in Yunnan Province who had been cheated with fake horn. So he only wanted very small samples at this point to have them checked out and he would come back for more if they turned out to be the real thing. On the last trip, we also extended this survey to some of the main towns in Laos and found that some of the key dealers used the even more relaxed enforcement regime there to handle their imports and then distribute to neighboring China and Vietnam. Again we found rhino horn in a range of outlets. It all was said to be from Asian animals, with many of the sellers insisting there were still Java and Sumatran rhinos in the hill tribe areas of Laos.

We were shown one complete African horn. While generally a good imitation, it incorporated features of what we also saw in the Asian horns, and it was evident that whoever produced it had not seen many real African horns. Also clear was that the majority of the horns on sale in retail settings were fake and that 90% of the end consumers were likely to end up with water buffalo horn products. We filmed in a factory where they prepared the tips of water buffalo horn to make them look more polished and more like the tops of rhino horns. We saw dozens of such pieces in the production stage.

We got a lot of very interesting information from these recorded conversations, including what appeared to be some of the key dealers. Some of the basic facts that came out via this kind of more informal approach to researching demand-and-supply characteristics can be found on the OP website.

A sampling of those findings includes:
• Rhino horn is openly available not just in TCM shops, but also in some jewelry outlets and souvenir markets generally visited by tourists from the region.
• We didn't hear of a single case of active enforcement or prosecution of any hunter or dealer.
• The last indigenous Vietnamese rhino was declared to have perished shortly before our first visit.
• A lot of dealers know they're dealing with fake horn products and, as such, consider themselves to be "legal."
• Most of the horn on offer tends to be cut slabs or the tips, indicating that it mostly comes from polished and modified water buffalo horns.
• Prices quoted at the wholesale level to buy a whole or a large chunk of a horn, based on weight, were pretty uniform at $20,000 for African horn and $40,000 for Asian horn per kilogram (Asian horns are much smaller than African horns). It was clear that with fake products more flexibility existed in negotiations.
• A dealer in the north of North Vietnam told us that a drug-enforcement unit recently visited him and took some of his horn, telling him that he would be paid later, indicating corruption in law enforcement on all levels.

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