Rhinos: Too little, too late?

With the demand for rhino horn being driven primarily by the Vietnamese and Chinese markets, conservation groups have focused their attention on campaigns directed at combating its use both as a stimulant and as a medicine. The above poster is also available in Vietnamese, as it is in Vietnam that demand for rhino horn is centred around its supposed psychoactive properties, where it is thought to prevent hangovers and is dissolved in water and drunk, thought by partygoers to be much like cocaine. In Vietnam, then, rhino horn is more status symbol for the wealthy elite than anything, though legends still persist of its cancer-curing properties, despite it not being in the traditional Chinese medicine pharmacopoeia. Rhino horn sellers stalk hospitals in Vietnam, looking for those cancer sufferers desperate enough to buy what is worth more than gold.

As the campaigns attack rhino horn as status symbol, and the mythology around its properties, there are some worries from conservation groups, such as Traffic, that the adverts might have the opposite effect from the one hoped, and instead of showing rhino horn to be merely propertyless keratin, serve to show rhino horn to be even rarer and exclusive than previously thought.

The Vietnamese government has made some moves towards combating the illegal trade in rhino horn, signing a a memorandum of understanding with South Africa in 2012, and cracking down on public sales of rhino horn in the capital, Hanoi. However, these steps appear to have had little effect, with the number of rhinos being poached in South Africa jumping to 1,004 in 2013, up from 668 in 2012. Government collusion with the illegal trade has been known since 2006, however (The South Africa – Vietnam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus, p82), and so the moves by the Vietnam government feel little more than cosmetic. There is a reluctance to enforce the law with regards to the illegal trade, and whilst traditions will take time to change, immediate action such as seizures and arrests are needed. For what it’s worth, he Javan rhino was hunted to extinction in Vietnam.

Finally, the above is a video from the Human Society International, for Chinese consumers. The demand in China is based around the supposed medicinal properties of rhino horn, so the video focuses on the message that rhino horn in fact lacks all those apparent qualities. WildAid launched a campaign in China aimed at combating the trade, and they were able to call on the likes of Yao Ming, Li Bing Bing, and Jackie Chan to front various videos:

There are high hopes for these campaigns, particularly Say No To Ivory and Rhino Horn, fronted by Yao Ming, who previously worked with WildAid against shark fin soup in China. His campaign is credited with a reduction of 50 – 70% in the consumption of shark fin, and shows the willingness of the Chinese public to take this kind of message on board. Whether the campaigns hit home in Vietnam remains to be seen, but they are just one part of an over all effort that needs to be backed up and enforced by strong policing and sentencing.

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