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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Rhino Horn Trade

The story at the consumer end

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The demand for rhino horn in Vietnam has increased substantially over the past few years. Most rhino horn entering Vietnam comes from South Africa. In 2010, more than 300 rhinos were killed by poachers there. Not only is the demand for horn as medicine widespread in urban areas of Vietnam, but it's also available, along with special tools for grinding it, to buy in shops and online. The Vietnamese rhino also suffered from habitat loss, agricultural encroachment and the inability of Vietnam to protect the last survivors, even in its most famous parks.
• The main import dealers are well-established businessmen involved in all kinds of related activities, including trading in other contraband. In the case of a key Laotian importer, he hands out a business card showing that he's the head of the chamber of commerce for his district and the deputy head of the Laotian boxing and swimming association. He also operates a macaque-breeding farm with primates being sold as captive bred when many are indeed wild-caught imports from Thailand and Cambodia. Most of them are exported to the U.S. for medical research. He's also about to expand his tiger farm.
• Dealers on this level (we have one such conversation on camera) often hire "mules," just like with the drug trade, to get the merchandise to their headquarters. If anything should go wrong at the international level, they can disassociate themselves from any such transaction and deal with the product once it's in the country. They don't have to worry about any potential problems occurring along the borders.

During a recent tiger conservation meeting in Bangkok, sponsored by the World Bank, and with Interpol, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and the World Customs Organization in attendance, I asked the chair why the Laotian delegate couldn't be confronted with some of the evidence and facts listed here. This included the open display of ivory in many stores in his country, demonstrating the absence of any kind of political will to enforce international conventions such as CITES. The answer: Some of the officials here are as frustrated as you and I.

In discussions with Western diplomats accredited to Vietnam, approaches to modifying the demand characteristics were discussed. The feeling was and is that attacking the validity and effectiveness of the TCM industry and products would most likely backfire and that the viewpoint of the West on such issues was no longer relevant. We discussed a Public Service Announcement campaign on local TV stations, illustrating the techniques used by dealers to present horn as real when most are not. We would then suggest that consumers might be better off spending their money on a designer bag or a diamond ring (of course, there also are a range of rings available with the very tip consisting of Asian rhino horn where the diamond normally would go, as well as fake designer bags and diamond rings).

The feeling was that the name, shame and embarrassment of such a message might be a lot more powerful and effective than another study questioning the medicinal properties and value of rhino horn. One diplomat suggested that the reaction to such a campaign most likely would come from the very top and indicate whether governing members were consumers of rhino horn. At least it would be a good indication if there's any hope to affect change at the consumer level in a timely manner. More conversations about conservation don't seem to do the trick.

Karl Ammann is a wildlife photographer and conservation activist. He's an advisory director to several organizations, including the World Society for the Protection of Animals, the Cheetah Conservation Fund and the Biosynergy Institute. Lately, he has been investigating an extensive wildlife smuggling ring stretching from Central Africa to Egypt. Visit www.karlammann.com.

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