Why does Vietnam love Rhino horn so much?

Rhino horn consists of keratin, the same material that makes up hair and nails in humans, and hooves in horses. Rhino horn differs from the horns of most other animals in that respect, as the horns of other animals are usually  made from calcium. The exact chemical composition of each rhino will differ slightly, depending on diet and geographical location, and the horn is structured in a similar way to  turtle beaks and cockatoo bills, with the centre of the horn having build ups of calcium and melanin, with the calcium affording the horn more strength, and the melanin providing protection from the sun. The softer outer portion of the horn is worn away over time, sharpening it as one would a pencil.

Rhino horn, much like ivory, is one of the symbols of the illegal wildlife trade, and the poaching of rhinos in South Africa has exploded over the past 7 years, from 13 animals killed in 2007, to 83 in 2008, and peaking at 1004 in 2013. This year, as of June 30th, 496 rhinos have been killed in South Africa – a rate of almost 3 a day. All 5 species of rhino are listed as endangered, and if the rate of killing continues at its current pace, deaths will overtake births in 2016, and rhinos will become extinct in a matter of years.

The poaching of rhinos is driven by the illegal trade in rhino horn, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as in ornaments, but most importantly it is has seen a sudden surge in popularity and demand in Vietnam – where it is thought to have psychoactive properties. With the sudden growth in demand, horns can fetch $100,000 a kilo – making them worth more than gold – and they are an attractive prize to organised criminal gangs in Thailand, Africa, and even in the United States and Europe, where gangs raid museums for horns to sell on the black market.

Vietnam’s surge in demand is relatively recent, as The Atlantic reports, and dates back to just 2008.  During the 1990s and early 2000s, demand was so low that only 15 rhinos were poached each year, and horns sold for as little as $250 – $500 per kilo. Bans instituted among Asian countries in the 1908s and early 1990s had helped reduce supply, and rhino horn being removed from traditional Chinese medicine pharmacopeia in the 1990s helped reduce demand. So, as The Atlantic point out, something must have happened during 2007 and 2008 to produce such a massive spike in demand, and they point to a rumour that imbibing rhino horn had cured a Vietnamese politician’s cancer – a property that traditional Chinese medicine has never invested in rhino horn, and is something that is specific to Vietnam.

Many Vietnamese are wealthier than they have ever been before, and with the rising middle class and wealthy elite has come the desire to spend money on exotic products. With incidents of cancer growing ever higher, and cancer diagnosis and treatment still developing, some Vietnamese are willing to spend exorbitant amounts on ‘cures’ such as rhino horn, with one woman being reported to have purchased $2000 worth on her doctor’s orders. However, some conservation groups dispute the importance of the cancer curing claim to the rapid growth in demand for rhino horn, and point instead to its prevalence as a party drug and status symbol for the newly wealthy. This point is undeniable, as it has been reported to be a hangover cure, used liberally by the wealthy (it has always meant to help the liver), and with alcohol consumption on the rise, this is reported as the most common usage. It is also reputed to have psychoactive properties similar to cocaine, as well as be a virility enhancer (which has no basis in traditional Chinese medicine), so it is easy to see why it is so popular with Vietnam’s wealthy, partying classes.

In Vietnam, then, rhino horn is a status symbol now more expensive than cocaine. It serves as a luxury gift to help business deals go more smoothly, and it is even popular among government officials. There is little need to keep the use of rhino horn a secret, despite some efforts being made by customs officials, and the Vietnamese embassy in South Africa has been implicated in the rhino horn trade, according to Traffic, even to the extent that the embassy’s First Secretary, Vu Moc Ahn, was caught on film apparently conducting a rhino horn transaction in front of the embassy. Ms. Moc Ahn was recalled, but is now apparently back in Africa at a neighbouring country, and the South African government is quiet on the topic of Vietnam’s complicity in the illegal wildlife trade (Traffic Species Reports, Mammals #66, p83). As The Atlantic note, the last “Javan rhino in Vietnam was found dead in the last Javan rhino in Vietnam was found dead, a bullet wound in his leg and with his horn hacked off” – in Vietnam the fate of the rhino, it seems, was never much of a concern.

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