Her father gave her the 10cm piece of horn as a gift, claiming it cures everything from headaches to cancer. Vietnam has become so obsessed with the fingernail-like substance it now sells for more than cocaine.
“I don’t know how much it costs,” says Ms Giang, 24, after showing off the brown horn in her high-rise flat overlooking the capital, Hanoi.
“I only know it’s expensive.”
Vietnam’s surging demand is threatening to wipe out the world’s remaining rhinoceros populations, which recovered from the brink of extinction after the 1970s thanks to conservation campaigns. Illegal killings in Africa hit a record last year and will be worse this year.
This week SA called for renewed co-operation with Vietnam after a “shocking number” of rhinos have already been reported dead this year. China has long valued rhino horn for its purported — and unproven — medicinal properties, but international wildlife experts now say Vietnam’s recent intense craving, blamed partly on a widespread rumour that rhino horn cures cancer, is putting unprecedented pressure on the world’s estimated 28000 remaining animals, mainly in SA.
“It’s a very dire situation,” US Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe said by telephone. “We have very little cushion for these populations in the wild.”
Although data on the global rhino horn trade is scarce, poaching in Africa has soared in the past two years. US officials say China and Vietnam are driving the trade that has no “significant” end market in the US.
Wildlife advocates say that over the past decade, rhino horn has become a sought after luxury item for some Vietnamese nouveaux riches, alongside Gucci bags and Maybach cars.
Between 2006 and 2008, three diplomats at the Vietnamese embassy in Pretoria were linked to embarrassing rhino trafficking scandals, one caught on tape. In February, US agents pounced on an alleged interstate rhino horn trafficking syndicate with Vietnamese-American ringleaders.
According to a court affidavit, Felix Kha, one of the alleged traffickers arrested in the US, travelled to China 12 times between 2004 and 2011 and to Vietnam five times last year.
“There are still horns going into China, but Vietnam is driving the increase in poaching for horns,” says Chris R Shepherd, deputy regional director for Southeast Asia at the wildlife advocacy group Traffic. “Vietnamese authorities really need to step up their efforts to find out who is behind horn trafficking … and put them out of business.”
The rhino horn craze offers bigger payoffs than other exotic wildlife products such as bear bile or tiger bone paste. American officials say the crushed powder fetches up to $60 000/kg in Asia — a price that can top the US street value of cocaine, making it as valuable as gold. Demand is so great that thieves are now pinching rhino horns from European museums and taxidermy shops, sometimes smashing them off with sledgehammers before fleeing. Europol, the European law enforcement agency, says 72 rhino horns were stolen from 15 European countries in 2011, the first year such data was recorded.
Poachers in SA are also using chain saws to cut rhinos’ horns off. Mostly they shoot them dead, even though the horns can grow back within two years without harming the animal, if carefully cut.
Officials and nonprofit organisations in SA are pre-emptively cutting some rhinos’ horns in an attempt to save them, but poachers are killing them anyway just for the nubs.
Vietnam wiped out its own last known Javan rhinoceros in 2010, despite the country’s earlier efforts to protect it.
The last of the population was found dead in a national park, shot through the leg with its horn hacked off.
Tran Dang Trung, who manages a zoo outside Hanoi that imported four white rhinos from SA, says he worried for the animals’ safety even though the zoo has 24-hour security.
“If thieves wanted to kill the animals and steal their valuable parts, they could,” Trung says, standing outside the rhinos’ basketball court-sized outdoor pen.
Laws in Vietnam surrounding the business of importing horns are murky, and crackdowns are rare, despite government pledges to root out traffickers.
Officially, no more than 60 horns are legally imported into Vietnam as trophies bagged from South African game farms each year, but international wildlife experts have estimated the actual number of trophy horns taken by Vietnamese nationals from SA each year exceeds 100.
Earlier this week, the South African government said it was working with the Vietnamese to stop the potential abuse of hunting permits. Hanoi has also been asked to conduct inspections to make sure rhino trophies imported from SA still remain in the hunters’ possession.
It is impossible to track how other rhino horns are entering Vietnam, wildlife advocates say, but they point to local media reports suggesting Vietnamese diplomats are implicated in the international trade that has been largely banned since 1976.
In 2006, a diplomat at Vietnam’s South African embassy was arrested for trafficking rhino horn, while another was filmed two years later trading the substance outside the mission’s gates. A third diplomat was also questioned that same year after 18 kg of rhino horn was found in his car outside a casino.
In a statement, foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said those incidents reflected badly upon Vietnam’s image, and that the diplomats all faced disciplinary measures.
Meanwhile, illegal rhino killings in SA are skyrocketing — from 122 in 2009 to 333 in 2010 and a record 448 last year. Experts say 600 could be killed this year, with nearly 60% taken from the Kruger National Park. The species could go into decline from 2016.
In Hanoi, Vietnamese buy rhino horn on the streets of the city’s bustling old quarter, where a traditional medicine dealer recently said the average prescription costs 200000 dong ($10).
Article courtesy of: http://www.businessday.co.za/Articles/Content.aspx?id=169149 – MIKE IVES