Horny Demand—Makeshift
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Hanoi’s black market copies its own goods, undercutting the destructive rhino horn trade

— Horny Demand

08. Copycats Dispatches

Every evening, Le Van Tuan would drink a tall glass of rice wine. To combat the ensuing hangover, he ground rhino horn into a glass of water. This, he said, would also prevent disease.

Many Vietnamese believe rhino horns can cure everything from hangovers to cancer and impotence. Wealthy men like Le Van Tuan often consume them at group functions, including so-called ‘rhino wine associations’, where habitual users mix rhino horn powder with water or alcohol.It is also regarded as the ultimate status symbol due to both its rarity and financial value; many gift it in the form of jewelry.

Despite Vietnam’s economic slump, Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis, and Bentleys of the nouveaux riche dot Hanoi’s swarm of motorbikes. Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Gucci remain essential accoutrements for well-heeled luncheons.

Rhinoceros horns, though less visible, are proving a more immediately destructive desire of the wealthy, leading to the recent extinction of the western black rhino. And despite global outcry from environmentalists, they show little sign of becoming passé. One common route originates in South Africa, with poachers funded by criminal syndicates. The horns pass by truck through Mozambique, shipped in sealed consignment. Bribed customs officials allow them into Vietnam, where they’re sold by dealers in medicinal markets.

Hanoi’s old quarter, where the country’s counterfeit industry thrives, takes part in a different chain. Here, the premier fakes don’t knock off designer brands or top-shelf liquor but high-end animal parts. Both traditional Chinese medicine dealers and modern Internet vendors surreptitiously fill the local appetite with imitation horns made from more plentiful cattle or buffalo.

Cattle and buffalo horns are distinct in that they are hollow once removed from the skull, while rhino horns are filled with keratin, with a depression at the underside. Cattle and buffalo horns are, however, solid at their tips and can be filled and crafted to mimic the rhino variety. They can be distinguished further by the direction and curvature of surface corrugations.

Another popular recipe simply uses wood, dry bamboo root, and lac. These fakes are impregnated with frog meat to defy sniff tests.The facsimiles are fueling a growing and lucrative industry. Bulk ‘freshly cut’ rhino horns command a retail price between USD 20,000 and 60,000 per kilogram, rivaling the street value of cocaine. They retail for more than ivory and gold. Imitation horns—which arose from market forces and not conservation efforts—fetch a still-substantial price of USD 15,000 per kilo.

A traditional medicine dealer grinds a variety of herbs into a customized mixture

A traditional medicine dealer grinds a variety of herbs into a customized mixture

Wildlife experts say the manufacture and sale of these imitation horns account for as much as 90 percent of those sold across Vietnam. Yet they have not succeeded in flooding the market to bring down the price.Part of the problem, according to Karl Ammann, a conservationist and wildlife photographer devoted to stopping the slaughter of endangered bushmeat, is the cultural acceptance of what he calls an “illegal lifestyle product” in Asian societies. It makes a fine gift and can be used as acceptable currency for high-end goods like cars. The horn’s luxury status inflates its price.

“These rhino horn products have to be worn,” says Amman, “or the status symbol aspect goes out the window. Showing off these items at the same time says, ‘I am above the law.’”

A number of wildlife protection agencies in Vietnam were reluctant to talk to Makeshift about fakes due to fears that media attention to imitation horns would drive up demand for the real thing. Some did, however, express qualified optimism that by raising awareness of rhino horn consumption, attitudes might change.

“We are hopeful it could be a generational thing or a fad,” reported one conservationist in Vietnam, who asked to remain anonymous. “You look at other markets in the region. The consumption of rhino horn used to be a major problem in countries such as Taiwan and Japan; now, it is virtually nonexistent.”

Although hard statistics are hard to come by, conservationists say that demand has also dropped in China. The success of awareness campaigns around stopping the consumption of shark fins hints that efforts to change destructive habits are not falling on deaf ears in Asia. Research conducted by the conservation organisation Wild Aid said that demand reduction campaigns had led to a reduction in consumption of shark-fin soup by between 50 and 70 percent in Chinese restaurants.

Experts hope Vietnamese consumers will follow suit in the case of rhino horn. But usage in Vietnam has an ancient history, only partially linked to traditional Chinese medicine. Historically, rhino horns have been associated with reducing temperature and purging the body and blood of toxins. In recent years, they have been promoted to treat life-threatening diseases like cancer despite a dearth of clinical evidence showing any pharmacological value for such cases. A 2012 report by wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC cites a “cynical marketing ploy” explicitly targeting people with terminal illnesses.

What is in no doubt is that the current appetite in Vietnam is threatening to wipe out the world’s remaining rhinoceros populations, which, thanks to conservation campaigns, barely recovered from the brink of extinction in the 1970s and 80s. By 1993, just 2,475 black rhinos were recorded, but the population had stabilized by this time, largely due to significant population increases in South Africa and Namibia that offset mortalities elsewhere. Most of these populations continued to show modest increases. Thanks to successful conservation and anti-poaching efforts, the total number of black rhinos has grown to about 4,838. Last year, however, the total number of rhinos killed illegally in South Africa—the main source of rhino horn—reached a record toll of 668. The total for 2013 is expected to top that. Other countries with populations of rhino, such as Kenya, India, and Nepal, also find their wildlife reserves under siege. In November of this year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature pronounced the western black rhino subspecies officially extinct.

Back in Hanoi, Nguyen Huu Minh shakes his head ruefully as he recalls the demise of his best friend’s uncle, Le Van Tuan, despite daily consumption of rhino horn. “He swore by it,” he recalls. “He basically thought he was indestructible because of the horn.”Le Van Tuan passed away two years ago. The cause: liver cancer.

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