Rhino Horn: Worth its Weight in Gold

Two Vietnamese men have been arrested in Johannesburg in possession of 41kg of rhino horn, as the debate and scandal surrounding the illegal trade of this prized material continues.

The 41kg haul of horn detected by Customs detector dogs was estimated to be worth 4.5 million South African Rand, the largest single amount ever seized in South Africa. Rhino horn can fetch up to $100 000 on the black market, comparable to cocaine and gold, and poaching in South Africa has rocketed from  13 animals in 2007 to a record 1004 last year. But why is it in such high demand, and where?

rhino-horns

The strongest market for rhino horn is in Vietnam, where it has an ancient medicinal history; traditionally it is believed to cure ailments ranging from high temperature to epilepsy. These beliefs have modernised to include life-threatening diseases, as horn dealers tout anti-cancer effects in particular. Shockingly, the most common use of rhino horn in Vietnam is unrelated to illness, among an affluent class who are thought to demonstrate their status in the extravagant use of horn as an aphrodisiac, detoxifying tonic or hangover cure. This is fuelled by websites with slogans such as “rhino horn with wine is the alcoholic drink of millionaires”. In fact it consists solely of keratin, the protein contained in our hair and nails, and no scientific evidence supports any purported beneficial properties.

With its indigenous rhinos poached to extinction, Vietnam has established illicit trade links with South Africa, which hosts almost the entire African population of White Rhinos, as well as a significant number of Black Rhinos. Poaching has escalated rapidly in recent years, and protective measures including security, micro-chipping, horn amputation or dye injection have had little effect against poachers that are increasingly equipped with highly sophisticated weapons and technology. The critically endangered animals are left dead or dying following mutilation.

Rhino Mutilation

After a recent public information campaign in Vietnam, the demand for rhino horn has decreased by over a third, showing the importance of such schemes. Nevertheless, 38% of Vietnamese still believe that it has healing properties, and can cure diseases such as cancer.

The battle against rhino poaching is complex, involving multiple political, economic and cultural factors. Social movements such as The Cliptivists , and the involvement of celebrities including David Beckham, help to raise awareness as efforts to curb poaching are redoubled. Increasing regulation, law enforcement and education are crucial steps; furthermore, clinical trials to investigate the exact properties of rhino horn could help to provide alternatives and disprove medical myths that are fuelling this brutal trade.

 

 

For further reading about rhino horn trade in SA and Vietnam click here.

 

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Veronica Wignall

Veronica is a Biology graduate from the University of Bristol, she is currently an editorial assistant but hopes to move into science media comms! Follow Veronica on Twitter @vronwig

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