On arrival in Hanoi, the nation’s capital, I need to seek out case studies that draw comparisons with the current spike in rhino horn use, and also test the theory that horn is readily available within local markets.
Nguyen Van Quan and Douglas Hendrie are Wildlife Crime Unit and Investigations advisers at Education for Nature in Vietnam (ENV). Doug has lived here for 14 years. Both are very familiar with the trade and the culture of traditional medicine. They talk of the spike in rhino horn use in Vietnam as a possible fad.
In the past, lucrative trades have existed in other commodities that were rare and exclusive. Bear bile, soft-shell tortoise and deer antler wine were all previous examples of local wildlife commodities that have been through the spike in Vietnam that rhino horn use is currently going through. The use of these products was medicinal and culinary, but as we discovered, mostly status related.
Whether something may work for cancer or fever is often irrelevant. Having rhino horn in one’s possession, and even on display in one’s home, distinguishes the owner in social circles.
With these commodities though, previously as exclusive as rhino horn, once the market had been flooded, the price dropped and with it demand.
With substantial rhino horn stockpiles across the African continent, including five tons in Zimbabwe, one now wonders what would happen if they were released on to the market. If done in a controlled fashion and to multiple buyers to minimise further stockpiling, could the exclusivity drop, leading to market price reductions and in turn lessen consumer demand? Would this sale have the same affect on China’s market?
The economics of rhino farming could possibly be similar to those of bear bile farming in that the animal needs to be kept alive, not killed. The opening of new farms was banned in Vietnam in 2005 and the trade has become much more regulated compared to what it was. Illegal activities still occur always without enough attention from the authorities. Although these farms are extremely distressing, they are reported to be much more regulated, with the micro-chipping of animals mandatory and phase-out plans being designed. The number of bears in captivity in Vietnam has slowly declined from 4 500 to 3 500 as the price of bile drops and the costs of maintaining the farms increase.
One of Doug’s primary concerns within Vietnam, if trade were to be legalised, would be how to regulate it. As with many developing countries, corruption is widely present in Vietnam and the concern of regulating wildlife trade is not at the forefront of everyone’s mind. So what could this mean? Continued illegal killing of rhinos in Africa? The sale of imitation horn, as is already happening on the streets in Asia, or perhaps the widespread breeding of rhinos across the country? Already in Vietnam there are three rhino farms with 14 white rhino.
Demand is not determined by supply, but by what the consumer wants, which also determines price. Trade restrictions are likely leading to stockpiling of horns within the black market, as uncertainty grows regarding the future of the rhino and the value of its horn.
After walking through downtown Hanoi I approach Lan Ong Street, where all the traditional medicine markets are found. I travel through the markets and feel the eyes on me. Western reporters have been flocking here to point fingers, seek interviews and take photographs in recent months of the markets and the end sale point for rhino horn. I know this and bring out an iPhone and show the video of us dehorning rhino in Africa. At first I’m turned away with a polite shake of the head and a finger towards the door. At only the second shop I purchase two dishes used in Vietnam to grind the horn into a powder before it is diluted with water or alcohol to be consumed. The video works again. We ask if they have rhino horn for sale and she says she has. She is willing to sell me rhino horn there and then for US$75 000 per kilo.
When Vietnamese are struggling with serious health issues and their current treatment regime is not working, their deep-rooted culture incites them to try anything and everything that may assist.
I can’t help but wonder whether, if my young son or daughter was dying, I myself wouldn’t travel to the ends of the earth and beyond to try to save them, or at least give hope. When life is on the line, where do we stop?