Seized rhino horns are shown with alleged Vietnam smuggler Pham Quang Loc, 56, behind left, during a news conference at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013. Thai Customs officials seized more than half a million US dollars worth of rhino horn hidden inside a souvenir hippo and arrested passenger Pham Quang Loc at the airport earlier Sunday, on arrival in Thailand from Ethiopia. (AP Phoro/Apichart Weerawong)

Cape Town - Possessing and using rhino horn in Vietnam is illegal – but there has not been a single prosecution in that country for this widely committed offence.

And while buyers and users of rhino horn are aware they are breaking the law, they are proud to talk about it.

This emerged when the results of a comprehensive user research survey conducted in Vietnam last November and in March this year were revealed by conservation group WWF-SA.

WWF-SA funded the wildlife trade network monitoring group Traffic to investigate how rhino horn was bought and consumed in Vietnam, because that country is widely acknowledged as the main market driving the illegal international trade, although other Asian countries like China, Laos and Thailand are also involved to a degree.

Traffic, in turn, commissioned a detailed consumer survey by well-known research company Ipsos, and its researchers conducted 720 one-on-one interviews with middle-upper income adults in the major centres of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

It found that the main users of rhino horn tended to be successful, well-educated men older than 40, while buyers were often women in their 50s supplying their families.

One of the major findings – and among the greatest concerns for the future – is that of those respondents who were not currently buying or consuming rhino horn, 16 percent said they wanted to do so in the future.

They wanted to emulate the current buyers and consumers who were seen as influential people in Vietnamese society, explained WWF-SA’s rhino co-ordinator, Dr Jo Shaw.

The survey showed that the most popular perceived benefit of rhino horn use was not medicinal but emotional, with the horn seen as a symbol of wealth and power, and strongly associated with success and therefore also with social standing.

This perception was the key to understanding the issue in this country, said Shaw.

 

The survey found that of those respondents who admitted to buying or consuming rhino horn, 41 percent were buyers only and 39 percent were consumers only who had never bought horn but had been given it.

Another 16 percent admitted purchasing rhino horn as a gift for others.

 

Dr Naomi Doak of Traffic said that there had to be a combination of enhanced law enforcement and “demand reduction” campaigns to shift attitudes and behaviour.

Our new insights on what is driving demand will allow the most targeted and influential response to dissuade consumption,” Doak said.

WWF-SA chief executive Dr Morné du Plessis said: “This pioneering consumer research will help us… as the fight against rhino poaching will ultimately be won in Asia, not Africa.”

 

Portrait of a typical user, Mr L

Who is the “archetypal” consumer of rhino horn in Vietnam?

According to the results of a major user survey – the first of its kind – he is the 48-year-old property developer, “Mr L”.

Married for 24 years and with a mistress, he lives with his family in a large four-bedroom house in the Ciputra area of Hanoi. His two children are 19 and 21.

He is focused on his social status and is potentially vulnerable to outside influences. He wants to be seen as a leader.

Career, success, financial security, family preservation, social status and peer lifestyle are top priorities for him. He believes that rhino horn is a badge of wealth, power, social status and hard work, and that using it – probably ground – gives him peace of mind and happiness.

Conservation group WWF-SA and wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic say that, according to the survey results, many rhino horn consumers in Vietnam are aware that the animals are killed but feel disconnected from this and do not see themselves as catalysts for the rhino poaching crisis. Instead they blame poachers.

Other users feel that even if rhinos were to become extinct, they personally would not be affected and so do not care.

“In Vietnam, many wildlife products are perceived as valuable and rare, but rhino horn is probably the most desirable. Rhinos are ‘the strongest animal there is’. But the poaching crisis and extinction of the Javan rhino in Vietnam in 2010 shows this is no longer true,” they say.

“In some ways, the rarity of the product adds to its appeal since one must be part of an exclusive network of people who can get in touch with suppliers.” - Cape Argus