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A man holds a hacked off rhino horn
Image: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Appetite for rhino horn

Jasper Zimmermann
June 10, 2014

Vietnam has joined China as a central driver of soaring demand for rhino horn, heralding a conservation nightmare. A slew of campaigns are using celebrities and strong messages to curb consumer demand.


When Vietnam’s rich and fashionable gather to party, there’s one special ingredient some use to spice up their drink - rhino horn powder. Mixed with wine or water, it’s been called “the drink of millionaires” and the “party drug of choice.” And the horn is not cheap, costing up to a whopping $65,000 a kilogram.

Buying a round of expensive rhino drink for friends and colleagues is increasingly seen as “cool” by status-conscious buyers. Many drinkers also believe it can detoxify the body after a night of heavy boozing and prevent a hangover. “Its consumers think they’re imbibing the energy and power of the rhino in some way,” Rosaleen Duffy, a professor of development studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, says.

Strong beliefs such as these coupled with rising wealth are driving demand, experts say. Used in traditional Chinese medicine, some newly rich Vietnamese believe rhino horn can treat all kinds of illnesses, boost male potency, improve general health and even cure cancer.

A 2012 report by TRAFFIC, a UK-based group that monitors the international wildlife trade, described the phenomenon of “rhino horn touts” stalking the corridors at hospitals in Vietnam, seeking out desperate patients with cancer. Studies, however, show that rhino horn has no medicinal value and that, like human fingernails, is made of keratin.

“Demand for rhino horn is based on ignorance and pride,” Peter Knights, founder of the California-based conservation NGO WildAid, says. “Ignorance of the consequences of consumption for rhino. And, for some, pride in a display of wealth at being able to purchase such an expensive product.”

‘Outrageous claims’

Vietnam’s emergence as a main hub for rhino horn is fairly new. In the last decade, the country has gone from being a negligible market for rhino horn to rivaling China as the world’s biggest.

Peter Knights says it’s part of a pattern of emerging countries that invariably see an uptick in demand for illegal wildlife products the wealthier their populations get. Vietnam’s urban rich have already developed a taste for wildlife products such as bear bile, skins or rare snake meat which is decimating species in the country’s national parks.

But, Knights says, Vietnam’s thirst for powdered rhino horn is a special phenomenon. “This is a market that appeared out of nowhere. It seems to have been deliberately created,” he says. “There wasn’t much traditional use of rhino horn in Vietnam, the way there was in China.”

Knights blames “criminal gangs and opportunists” looking to market rhino simply making up outrageous claims about the medicinal benefits of rhino horn. “They had a product to peddle, and some people are gullible enough to believe this sort of story,” he says.

But falling for those claims has had a devastating effect on the world’s surviving rhino population . While Vietnam no longer has any wild rhinos of its own left, its appetite for rhino horn is fueling an epidemic of poaching thousands of miles away in South Africa. The country is home to about 80 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos, more than 20,000 in total.

In 2013, the worst year on record, the South African government registered an unprecedented 1,004 known rhino killings by poachers, up from just 13 animals poached in 2007. Much of the slaughter is linked to demand for rhino horn from China and Vietnam.

‘Real men don’t use rhino horn’

That has alarmed conservation groups. After pursuing legislative solutions and a crackdown on poaching for years, some are increasingly focusing efforts on curbing demand for rhino horn among Vietnamese consumers.

A number of public awareness campaigns in recent months aim to debunk rhino myths and portray the use of rhino horn as decidedly uncool. “The message is that rhino horn consumption is cruelly slaughtering rhinos and threatening their extinction, which is shameful and anti-social,” Knights says, “The campaigns are meant to lessen the appeal of the products and the price and increase consuming countries' will to fight illegal trade,” he adds.

In a recent video campaign launched by WildAid, Vietnamese singer Quoc Trung addresses the social prestige and power attached to drinking rhino horn. “Real men don’t use rhino horn to stop a hangover,” he says in Vietnamese in the video.

“If you are buying rhino horn you may be paying for more than just the horn,” action star Jackie Chan says in another video, refers to the staggering price that both consumers and rhinos themselves are paying. “You’re paying for guns, bullets, poisoned arrows, chainsaws, axes, and machetes to hack off the face of the rhino,” he says, dodging weapons as a ‘rhino’ is built of the tools of the poaching trade. “And you are paying for the life of a beautiful creature.”

The campaign has recruited dozens of Vietnamese stars and international celebrities such as David Beckham and Prince Charles. Millions of dollars’ worth of free airtime has been donated by TV networks in Vietnam to show the ads.

‘When the buying stops, the killing can stop too’

Earlier this year, TRAFFIC and WWF, the Swiss-based environmental organization, also unveiled posters at upscale restaurants, apartment buildings and airports in major Vietnamese cities including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. They show an image of a rhinoceros whose horn has been replaced with human feet. "Rhino horn is made of the same stuff as human nails,” an accompanying slogan in Vietnamese says. “Still want some?"

Many conservation groups hope not. So, can such campaigns help drive home the message and blunt demand? Peter Knights points to a successful campaign against shark fin soup in neighboring China. It was spearheaded by retired NBA basketball star Yao Ming, an iconic figure in China, with the now famous WildAid slogan “when the buying stops, the killing can stop too.”

The campaign gathered steam over the past decade, driven by a coalition of Chinese and international businessmen, celebrities, and activists. The result, according to WildAid, has been a decline in demand for shark fin soup in China of between 50 to 70 percent since 2011.

Demand reduction alone can’t do the job

But experts are quick to acknowledge that reducing demand alone cannot work on its own.

“In order to effectively address the issue, we really need to work on both consumer demand and effective enforcement as well as protecting these animals in their natural environment with on the ground efforts,” Naomi Doak, a Vietnam-based campaigner for TRAFFIC says. “It’s about a holistic effort on all sides.”

Peter Knights points out that the campaign against shark fin soup in China only began to make real progress in 2012, when the country passed a ban on shark fin imports. And a year later, China ordered officials to stop serving dishes made from protected wildlife at official banquets.

Vietnam too has taken measures to tackle rhino horn trafficking and consumption. Trade in rhino horn has been illegal since 2006 and the law carries the threat of fines and up to seven years in prison. In 2012, the country signed a memorandum of understanding with South Africa on biodiversity conservation.

But the problem, experts say, remains weak enforcement. According to Hanoi-based ENV (Education for Nature Vietnam), no one has been sentenced to jail for trafficking in rhino horn since 2010. Naomi Doak says penalties tend to be “a slap on the wrist,” corruption remains a persistent challenge and there is “no concerted enforcement effort yet.”

All that means the remaining rhinos in Africa are being pushed ever closer to extinction.

China's NBA star Yao Ming (Photo: Archive from 15.04.2009)
Former NBA basketball star Yao Ming has taken a strong stance against shark fin soupImage: picture-alliance/dpa
Jackie Chan with a number of actresses at the Shanghai International Film Festival (Photo: Foto:Eugene Hoshiko/AP/dapd)
Jackie Chan is using his fame to speak out against the demand for rhino hornImage: AP
Two rhinos (photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwshq/6880953627/in/photostream/ Lizens: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.de)
Demand for rhino products has pushed the creatures to the brink of extinctionImage: CC2.0/USFWS Headquarters
Cut off rhino horns (Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/49956354@N04/4989580149/in/photostream/ Lizens: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.de)
Used in traditional Chinese medicine, some believe rhino horn is the answer to a number of ailmentsImage: CC 2.0/ukhomeoffice