A South African protester holds a sign and a fake rhino horn during a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Pretoria in 2011, calling on the government to stop poachers from killing rhinos for their horns. An international research has confirmed that rhino horn consumers are wealthy and use the horn mostly to confirm their social status within Vietnamese society. PHOTO: AFP
New international research appears to confirm the widely-held belief that regardless of what people say about "health benefits," the desire of wealthy urban Vietnamese to show off is the strongest driver of the rhino poaching crisis that has bedeviled both South Africa and Vietnam.
The research, funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA), surveyed 720 people in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City this year and showed that rhino horn consumers are wealthy and use the horn mostly to confirm their social status within Vietnamese society.
While their reasons for purchasing and consuming rhino horn are linked to an underlying belief in its medicinal properties, the dominant current trend is to use the dead animal to enhance social standing, according to the survey.
"Research reveals that typical users of rhino horn are successful, well-educated men, over the age of 40 who live in Vietnam's main urban centers," Jo Shaw, WWF-SA's rhino co-ordinator, said in a statement accompanying the release of the research findings on September 17.
"They value their luxury lifestyle, which is often based around meeting peer group pressures and tend to view animals as commodities to serve functional and income-generating purposes rather than feeling an emotional connection," Shaw said.
Independent conservationists have endorsed the research, saying it is the first comprehensive survey into the use of rhino horn in Vietnam.
"There is nothing new in the report that we do not know already," said Douglas Hendrie, an American technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam, one of Vietnam's few locally based conservation groups.
"But this is important to have it independently verified through a scientific survey. A very good thing for everybody," he told Vietweek.
In Vietnam, several lawmakers have even been more forthright, publicly accusing rich businessmen of using rhino horns to cement good ties with government authorities.
"Nowadays, bribes for officials are disguised in the form of not only gifts, luxury vacations and cars, but also rhino horns, bear bile, or tiger bone paste," said Le Nhu Tien, an outspoken lawmaker who has been vocal on the issue since last year.
It's glorious to be rich... except for rhinos
Perhaps one of the most significant findings of the research is that the number of potential buyers and consumers of rhino horn could triple that of those who are currently buying and using it.
Of 720 people surveyed, five percent admitted to buying or consuming rhino horn. But among those not currently using rhino horn, 16 percent are "intenders", individuals who said they wanted to buy or consume rhino horn in the future.
With the increase of wealth in Vietnam's upper-middle class, this group will soon become rhino horn consumers, WWF-SA said in the statement.
"This is definitely one of the most depressing results from the survey," Naomi Doak, coordinator of the Southeast Asia-Greater Mekong Program at the international wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC, told Vietweek.
On the day the research was released, a 29-year-old Vietnamese national was arrested trying to smuggle five rhino horns out of Kenya, according to news site AllAfrica. The man was in transit from Maputo, Mozambique en-route to Hong Kong via Doha, Qatar, it said.
Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman Paul Muya told Capital FM News that Le Manh Cuong was found in possession of the five pieces of rhino horns weighing 20.1kgs packed in a hand-drawn suitcase stuffed with mattress cuttings to disguise the contraband.
South Africa, home to more than 20,000 rhinos, or about 90 percent of all rhinos in Africa, lost 668 of them to poachers last year. At least 635 have been poached so far this year.
International conservation groups have identified Vietnam and China as the world's two major consumers of rhino horns, charges the two countries have bristled at.
South Africa and Vietnam have signed a pact on biodiversity management to curb the rampant illegal trade in rhino horns.
Conservationists are looking to make the most of the findings of the WWF-SA research to beef up the combination of enhanced law enforcement and demand-reduction campaigns to shift attitudes and behaviors against the trend in rhino horn use within the growing middle-class in Vietnam.
South Africa and Swaziland are the only two countries in the world to legalize rhino hunting. "Personal" hunting trophies can also be legally exported, but only the hunters in whose name the hunting and export permits are issued can legally possess them.
However, according to figures released by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), 657 rhino horns were legally imported from South Africa into Vietnam as hunting trophies between 2003 and 2010.
But the figure recorded by Vietnamese authorities is only 170, meaning that the remaining horns, whose value for the purpose of import taxes has been estimated at US$2 million, were not declared.
Vietnamese were second only to US hunters in terms of the number of rhino hunts undertaken in South Africa in 2007-09.
Conservation groups have urged South Africa to stop the trophy hunts to curb the supply side, but opponents of the ban say hunting played a key conservation role.
It is only through the profits from regulated trophy hunting that farmers started stocking, breeding and conserving rhinos, they say.
But Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency, an environmental group based in Washington and London, said the "powerful" commercial hunting industry in South Africa has failed to ensure "even modest" self regulation which "led to the eruption of illegal export of rhino horn from South Africa to Vietnam.
"[That] has directly led to the poaching crisis the country and other rhino range states are currently experiencing."
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