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The Rhino Horn Trade

The story at the consumer end

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.

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.

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