Nguyen, who was then a 23-year old master’s student at Cambridge University about to undergo her second surgery for bowel cancer, felt more determined than ever to protect rhinos – and other cancer survivors from this bogus treatment. “What he said made me feel like conserving the rhino is not only about protecting one species from extinction, but about saving lives.” Nguyen had already started her own wildlife conservation charity, WildAct, to raise awareness among fellow Vietnamese about the rhino and ivory poaching crisis, fuelled by organised criminal syndicates. Her surgeon’s stance, coupled with her own diagnosis, gave her the idea of probing how traditional Asian medicines are infiltrating Africa, for her thesis. That’s brought Nguyen, a PhD candidate at the University of Kent’s school of anthropology and conservation, to gritty Joburg areas like Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene, in New Chinatown, believed to be a hub of illicit rhino and ivory smuggling.

Raw and processed wildlife wares

Nguyen gestures to a small traditional Asian medicine shop tucked between a row of Asian supermarkets. It’s where she discovered raw and processed wildlife wares, some purporting to be derived from tigers; boxes of critically endangered golden coin tortoises, dried starfish, seahorses and bear bile powders. “Some of these medicines contain protected wildlife parts not allowed to be traded internationally.” But it’s by no means unique. “I’d say 90% of the shops here sell wildlife products… mostly packaged in Chinese so authorities don’t know what to look for. There’s also not a lot of enforcement.” Nguyen tells how in traditional Asian shops on Commissioner street in the CBD, and in nearby Mayfair, she discovered bear bile powders – likely smuggled from Asia – and “pangolin pills” for sale on supermarket shelves.

Feeding the demand in Asia

Pangolins are the most trafficked animal on earth and trade in all eight species, four of which are found in Africa, is outlawed globally. “Most Asian shops I visited (in South Africa), including clothes shops, would also sell some kind of medicine for sexual enhancement made from wild animals like lizards marinated in rice wine. I spoke to many local people in Joburg who regularly buy the products.” Nguyen has spent the past seven months in Joburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban, home to the country’s largest Asian populations, studying Chinese and Asian markets, supermarkets and traditional muti markets to gauge the prevalence of endangered species containing rhino horn, pangolin scales, ivory and bear bile. Globally, the demand for wildlife in traditional Asian medicine is a major driver for the illegal trade of wildlife. But the medicines play an important role in health care in Asia, gradually “being adopted by people across the globe”. Little is known, however, about how traditional Asian medicines may influence the behaviour of local people towards wildlife consumption. Africa, says Nguyen, is deemed a “source” continent – providing wildlife parts – to feed the demand in Asia.

“However, with the growing economic ties between Africa and Asia, as well as the increase in Asian immigrants in Africa, this continent might soon turn into an ‘end user’ of parts for traditional Asian medicine.” The Forum on China-Africa Co-operation has predicted that with Africa’s tradition of using herbal medicine, the “uptake of wild animal parts used in traditional Asian medicine may be more likely” on the continent than anywhere else. In 2011, China signed 91 traditional Asian medicine partnership agreements with 70 countries including South Africa, Kenya and Congo. For Nguyen’s research, she surveyed consumers of traditional Asian medicines from various ethnic groups: South African Asians, black Africans and practitioners of traditional African and Asian medicines.

“Traditional Asian medicines are becoming very popular in South Africa, especially among black African communities. I expected to find consumers open to the use of wildlife products because there are many similarities between traditional Asian and African medicines.” But her findings on rhino horn alarmed her. “Most black Africans who are consumers of traditional Asian medicines stated they’d like to try rhino horn to treat serious diseases like cancer as ‘Chinese ancient medicine is the best’. They seem to believe it’s used in Asia to cure serious diseases. They say they would buy it if it becomes cheaper and would prefer wild horn to farmed.” Traditional healers told her rhino horn is powerful and can “scare off enemies”, she reveals. “They said it can be used for cancer and treating serious illness. They grind it into a powder, mix it with water and sometimes herbs, to drink, which is very similar to the way Asians use it. Those who used it this way admitted they learnt it from Asian people.” But Chinese people born in South Africa, she discovered, “are more concerned about the poaching issue when asked about the use of rhino horn. Many – especially young people – tend to state they would never want to use rhino horn”.

South Africans using traditional Asian medicines believe rhino horn may cure cancer

Worryingly, new Chinese immigrants and older South African Chinese residents “express a strong belief in the use of rhino horn to treat serious sickness, including cancer and asthma”. Nguyen tells how she was approached at traditional muti markets in Joburg and KwaZulu-Natal, and offered pangolin scales, lion bone and even ivory and rhino horn. “Lion bone and pangolin scales are for sale openly and many traders stated that they frequently have Asian visitors who come over with a list of required items. Many ask for rhino horn, elephant ivory, lion bones and pangolin scales. This shows the open trade of these muti markets is not only supplying local domestic demand, but also creating opportunities for Asian syndicates to smuggle African wildlife parts out of the country.” More must be done to understand the demand for rhino horn within South Africa – a domestic market considered small by experts. “It’s important to get the Health Department involved to inform people about the faulty use of rhino horn for medicine.” She tells of her conversation with a Vietnamese rhino horn consumer back home who bought the horn for her mother, who was dying from cancer. “Her mom died a couple of months after putting all her hope and life-savings into rhino horn. “She (the daughter) stated maybe the horn did not work, because ‘it was a fake horn’. It didn’t occur to her that rhino horn didn’t save her mom because it actually does not have the power to cure cancer.”

Trang Nguyen’s research sounds interesting, but…

Dr Richard Thomas, of Traffic, says although Trang Nguyen’s research sounds interesting, “it’s vital sufficient evidence is gathered to support or deny these initial findings.
“Certainly, one might expect a level of rhino horn usage among the Asian communities now resident in Africa, but currently indications are that its overwhelmingly being trafficked to Asia. That doesn’t rule out a nascent domestic market, of course, but it’s unlikely traditional African markets would be able to compete with the high prices said to be paid in Asia.

“The lack of large bids at the recent rhino auction (by private rhino owner John Hume) would also point to a weak domestic market. So it’s difficult to find supporting evidence of a current strong domestic use, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of potential demand growing in the future, which would be a very unwelcome development.

“It’s important to monitor and continue to look for any new developments in rhino horn market dynamics, with perhaps a new look at muti markets.”

Kim da Ribiera, of Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching, says Nguyen’s findings are concerning. “While additional research would probably allow for a better understanding of the extent of the market, we believe her research is sufficient to show a market exists. Our wildlife is under incredible pressure with poaching levels increasing and to learn there is a growing market for traditional Asian medicines in SA is not welcome news.”

Sunnyboy Bapela, the chief director of compliance at the Department of Environmental Affairs, says biodiversity compliance workshops with the traditional medicine sector are bearing fruit. “If we find persistent non-compliance there will be enforcement actions.”

Ray Jansen, founder of the African Pangolin Working Group, says traditional African markets are not the problem. “We’ve found a lot of pangolin scales moved around local Asian markets this year and organised crime is definitely involved. In one shop in Gauteng the Green Scorpions recently raided, we found ivory, perlemoen, rhino horn and pangolin. These local Asian shops could be sourcing our local pangolin species on a large scale.”

Dr Louis Mullinder, registrar of the Allied Health Professions Council of SA, which includes Chinese medicine, says the use of rhino horn or pangolin scales in such practices is illegal. “It’s of concern there exists a plethora of persons practising without registration, which means the protection of the health of the public is not secured.”

The Saturday Star