The Rhino Horn Story at the Consumer End
Two years ago I was filming with a German TV team in a new casino town on the Laos/China border. These new enclaves are built on leased territory like Macau and then all the laws of the respective country, on either side of the border, go out the window. Gambling, prostitution, drugs and illegal wildlife consumption become the main economic activities and as such these new towns become hubs for all kinds of wildlife related activities including the establishment of bear bile farms. While we walked the streets we found two baby clouded leopards hidden in a carton box. I took them out and played with them while the camera was running, before the owner started protesting and put an end to it.
In the meantime our translator was approached by a lorry driver, who had his truck parked nearby and had witnessed the commotion. He told our guide that if we were interested in these cats there were two tiger cubs a few hours away that were for sale. He gave us the address in case we were interested and we went off to find the place towards the center of Laos. We got there and were told that the two cubs had been sold to a Vietnamese buyer two days earlier for US$ 4000.
I decided to follow up on the story on a later visit and hired the hunters which had killed the mother tiger with a landmine after using a cow as a bait and then caught the cubs and sold them via family members living near the main road. We also hired a Vietnamese translator who was going to try to help us with the tracking down of these cubs. We travelled to the area where the mother tiger was killed and then crossed into Northern Vietnam moving on to the location that the players involved thought might have been the most likely final destination. It turned out that our new translator/ guide had fled from Vietnam and settled in Laos a few years earlier, after his brother was arrested for trafficking heroin and sent for 20 years to a high security prison near Hanoi and the authorities had started looking for our translator. This was the first time he returned to his home country and he got an enthusiastic welcome from some of his family members. At this stage it became already very clear that wildlife and drug trafficking were in a totally different league when it came to national law enforcement priorities borne out by the sentence his brother got and that when it came to discussing tiger and tiger bone trafficking nobody seemed worried about any kind of law enforcement being an issue. Our translator who had also trafficked wildlife and tiger bones in the past, introduced us to some of the well-known dealers in a nearby town. We were offered tiger cake (boiled down from tiger bone), tiger claws and teeth and also a slab of rhino horn marked as weighing 89 grams.
It was then when I realized that wildlife traders in these parts were not just dealing in one product line but any wildlife items which would offer a good return. Clearly this was a given, with the high profit margins and little risk of there ever being any enforcement of prosecution (tiger bone cake pieces and tiger claws and teeth were in a special sales display case in the lobby of the hotel we stayed in and the menu was full of ‘forest food’ items) The next morning we sent our translator back to the dealer who had the slab of horn material to buy U$ 100 of what he said was and what looked like rhino horn. The sales transaction was documented with a hidden camera and then he also invited our man to come to the kitchen where a tiger skeleton was in the process of being boiled down into tiger bone/cake.
It also became clear that irrespective of tigers, ivory or rhino horn products, the traders we would meet were all potential sources of information for ALL of these items. So while trying to track down the tiger cubs we also started looking into rhino horn and its prices, availability, usage, etc.
We then decided to a do a survey of the Traditional Chinese Medicine shops in the old town of Hanoi. When it came to rhino horn we were clearly told that it did not have any kind of aphrodisiac qualities (we were offered alternatives) and that it did not really cure cancer, which was a rumor which had been going around, but that it did reduce fever and cleansed the body, especially after bouts of overconsumption of alcohol, food and drugs. Since this was just at the start of the national new year’s festivities, one dealer invited us to his family quarters above the shop for a glass of rice wine and then freely showed us tiger bone cake, claws, a rhino horn, elephant skin etc. After drinking some of the rice wine and again buying a very small sample of what he presented as rhino horn (the top part of it) the lady of the house came with a brown plastic bag which she pulled from a top step of a stair case and then offered us all a sampling of powdered horn which she instructed us to sprinkle into our rice wine and explained that, irrespective of our alcohol consumption during the holidays, we would never have a hangover.
The man of the house explained that rhino horn was only for the very rich and our guide backed it up with some anecdotes of his own illustrating that the demand on the Vietnam side was already high and increasing in line with the increasing affluence of some of the elite and that handing out rhino horn had become one way to illustrate that the individual in question ‘had arrived”. Our hosts also then sold us the ceramic plate with its rough inner surface and with a rhino drawing on the rim, as the tool to grind down our piece of horn into powder.
We later confirmed this demand characteristic over and over when talking to dealers who did not want to discuss the sale of small samples but were only interested to negotiate big piece items in the thousands of dollars making it clear that they were used to negotiate with the people of means and not tourists/end consumers looking for a few grams. The possession of rhino horn is now considered a status symbols like the Mercedes or diamond ring. Wall mounted trophies, including many African ungulate horns, set on an artificial cow skulls also belong to this category.
We were told that rhino horn pieces were also used to bribe officials and were offered generally as a present to people in power (When we returned in 2012 to the same family for the same new year’s celebrations, the wife was on her own, the husband had died of liver cancer – too much drinking she pointed out – and clearly the rhino horn cure had not done the trick.)
Since the original trip in 2010 I have been back three more times to Laos and Vietnam convinced that Vietnam is today one of the key end consumer countries for rhino horn, tiger bone and bear bile products (including farms where South Korean tourists go shopping by the bus load). With each trip it became more and more evident that rhino horn on sale appear to be mostly fake (the samples from the first trip when exposed to DNA analysis all turned out to be pieces of a water buffalo horn, but meant to have similar medicinal qualities as the real product). So on subsequent trips I and my translators started to become more discriminating and telling dealers that we had been taken for a ride with buffalo horn in the past and we wanted to see and discuss prices for the real stuff. Our local translator got on the internet and found 35 players advertising horn via the web. We fixed appointments and met with some of them. However it had also become clear at this point that, as a foreigner, I was looked at with suspicion. While nobody was worried about enforcement being triggered by offering us a product illegal under national and international laws, they figured out that we were not big players, willing to spend tens or hundreds thousands of dollars for a whole horn or a big piece. At this stage I was joined by a German print media journalist, and we sent off our local investigator on his own with a hidden camera to do some negotiations to buy horn. We then reviewed the material with him and wrote down a transcript of what was discussed and recorded.
We had now refined the story. Our local investigator explained that he was looking for horn for a friend in Yunnan province who had been cheated with fake horn and he only wanted very small samples at this point to have it checked out to then come back for more if it turned out to be the real thing.
On the last trip we also extended this survey to some of the main towns in Laos and found that some of the key dealers used the even more relaxed enforcement regime in Laos to channel through their imports and then distribute, without any problems, to neighboring China and Vietnam. Again we found rhino horn in a range of outlets. It all was said to be from Asian animals , except for one horn, with many of the sellers insisting there were still Java and Sumatran rhinos in the hill tribe areas of Laos.
We were shown one complete African horn. However, while generally a good imitation , it incorporated features of what we also saw in the Asian horns on offer and as such it was evident that whoever produced it had not seen many real African horns. What was now also clear was that a majority of the horns on sale in retail settings were fake and that 90% of the end consumers were likely to end up with a water buffalo horn products (we filmed in a factory where they prepared the tips of water buffalo horn to make them look more polished and more like the tops of rhino horns. We saw and filmed dozens of such pieces in the production stage.) If it was impossible to film openly with small cameras we employed some hidden equipment and where the conversations were in Vietnamese had our translator then prepare full transcripts from these records.
We got a lot of very interesting information from these recorded conversations, which included what appeared to be some of the key dealers. Some of the basic facts which came out via this kind of more informal approach to researching demand and supply characteristics included:
- Rhino horn is openly available not just in TCM shops but also in some jewelry outlets and souvenir markets generally visited by tourists from the region ).
- We did not hear of a single case of active enforcement, any prosecution of any hunter or dealer
- The last indigenous Vietnamese rhino was declared as having perished shortly before our first visit
- A lot of dealers know they are dealing with fake horn products and as such consider themselves to be ‘legal’.
- A wide range of verification methods are offered when questioning the authenticity of horn material. From the density of the material when cutting with an iron saw, to the color of the ‘milky’ solution when powder is mixed with water or rice wine, shining a sharp torch through part of the horn, burning a corner and sucking in a hairy smell, tapping the horn piece with a finger nail and analyzing the sound, pulling off some individual fibers (it seems one of the most reliable ways to try to identify real horn).
- Most of the horn on offer tends to be cut slabs or the tips indicating that it mostly comes from polished and modified water buffalo horns.
- When asked for the easier to identify base of the horn the dealers tell the stories of it being the most valuable part and always sold first and them only having the tips left
- Prices quoted at the wholesale level to buy a whole or a large chunk of a horn, based on weight, were pretty uniform at U$ 20 000 for African horn and U$ 40 000 for Asian horn per kg (they being much smaller than the African horns). It was clear that with imitation products more flexibility existed in negotiations (in one case a piece of horn was cut from the bigger part with a chisel and hammer and pieces flying all over shop).
- TCM dealers do trade in small quantities and it then it becomes retail and the prices go up (we also bought a sample in commercial packaging in Chinatown in Jakarta which officially stated it being 0.3 grams contained in a small glass vile).
- Besides this retail trade for medicine there is the market of the big players buying whole horns and having special trusted dealers doing the verification for them. These players include the nouveau rich with a Rolls Royce in the car park who buy it as a must have item, as a status symbol and possibly also looking at it as an investment opportunity with supply bound to get more restricted and respective prices going up. On several occasions we were told of a family patriarch buying up a whole horn and then taking care of the family's need and handing out pieces and powder as needed.
- A dealer in the north of North Vietnam told us that a drug enforcement unit recently visited him and took some of his horn telling him that he would be paid later, indicating corruption in law enforcement on all levels.
- The grinding plates have now also gone “up market”, with a new version made out of special Japanese clay which was introduced recently. The pamphlet which comes with the very fancy packaging also includes images of a live rhino and promises that horn can ‘cure incurable diseases’.
- The latest step being the sale of a special contraption (supposedly with a Japanese motor) that can be bought to grind down the horn into powder. The above plate is mounted on a rotating platform and the horn piece is then fixed above the plate into a vice type metal grip and lowered to the rough plate surface and then the machine is turned on, the horn base is stationary on the rough surface and the plate turns. So a whole industry producing accessory items is now evolving.
- In the case of the Asian rhino horns on offer, the fakes are much more realistic since the base is generally part of the very small horns but there are also obvious fakes.
- The main import dealers are well established businessmen involved in all kinds of related activities including the trading in other contraband (in one case said reputed to be amphetamines). In the case of a key Laotian importer he hands out a business card showing that he is the head of the chamber of commerce for his district and the deputy head of the Laotian boxing and swimming association. He also operates a macaque breeding farm with primates being sold as captive bred when many are indeed wild caught imports from Thailand and Cambodia - with most of them being exported to the US for medical research. He is also about to expand his tiger farm.
- Dealers on this level (we have one such conversation on camera) often hire ‘mules’, just like with the drug trade, to get the merchandize to their headquarters. If anything should go wrong at the international level they can disassociate themselves from any such transaction and they deal with the product once it is in the country and then they do not have to worry about any potential problems occurring along the borders.
- However even on the international level there seems little to worry about. I recently bought an imitation horn from a US store which produces Bone Clones of all kinds of skulls, human and animal bones including museum quality skeletons. I transported the well done imitation product openly in my check in bag over half a dozen international borders expecting somebody to detect the shape and form on an X-ray machine and questioning me. It never happened.
During a recent tiger conservation meeting in Bangkok, sponsored by the World Bank, and with Interpol, CITES, and the World Customs Union in attendance, I asked the chair why the Laotian delegate could not be confronted with some of the above evidence and facts (including the open display of ivory in many stores in his country) demonstrating the absence of any kind of political will to enforce international conventions such as CITES. The answer was: “Some of these officials attending here are as frustrated as you and I are”. The question I did not ask but should have is: Why do we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on such meetings in five star hotels if the attendees are not decision makers and have no way to help create real political will to mount some real enforcement campaigns? If at this level it is not possible to get “the real decision makers” to attend - then what is the point?
In discussions with western diplomats and conservation establishment players based in Vietnam, approaches to modifying the demand characteristics were discussed. The feeling was and is that attacking the validity and effectiveness of the TCM industry and products would most likely backfire and that the viewpoint of the West on such issues was no longer considered as relevant. We discussed a PSA (Public Service Announcement) campaign on local TV stations illustrating the technics used by dealers to present horn as real when indeed most are just pieces of a water buffalo horn or some other imitations and then suggesting that there is a real possibility (further DNA results are outstanding on a range of new samples) that a large percentage of the rhino horn trade involves fake products and that the consumer might have been better off having spent his or her money on a Gucci bag or a diamond ring (of course there are also a range of rings on offer with the very tip consisting of Asian Rhino horn where normally the diamond would go) or maybe a Gucci bag or Rolex watch.
The feeling was that the name and shame and embarrassment component of such a message might be a lot more powerful and effective then another study questioning the medicinal properties and value of rhino horn.
One diplomat suggested that the reaction to such a campaign would most likely come from the very top and be indicative if Polite Bureau members were consumers of rhino horn or not and the reaction would be accordingly. At least it would be a good indication if there is any hope to effect any change at the consumer level in a timely fashion. More conversations about conservation do not seem to do the trick.
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