a rhinoceros in a field

Source: Mike Richardson

Over the past 5 years, there has been a huge rise in the number of white rhinos killed in South Africa, which is home to 90% of the world’s rhino population:

Rhinos Killed in South Africa, 1990-2011

chart, line chart

Source: Rolling Alpha

A rising demand for white rhino horns in Vietnam may be causing this uptick. Conservationists say that most of Africa’s horns end up in Vietnam– last year, authorities detained two Vietnamese poachers who were caught smuggling 60 pounds of horns (worth almost $1.5mm). Research by a Vietnamese marketing company estimates that about 5% of the country’s population intend to buy rhino horn.

What is going on in Vietnam? Part of the craze might be due to a bizarre rumor that went viral in the mid-2000s. Word got out that a local politician abated a cancer scare by ingesting white rhino powder. And since Vietnam’s health infrastructure has not been able to keep up with the rising number of cancer cases, people have been looking for alternatives. So if you are ill and have money to spend, why join the long wait-list for treatment when you could see if the powder does the trick?

Another reason for the increased demand, according to Erin Conway-Smith of Global Post, is that rhino horn is now Vietnam’s “new drug of status”:

“The belief in Vietnam is that drinking a tonic made from the horn will detoxify the body after a night of heavy boozing, and prevent a hangover. One Vietnamese news website describes rhino horn wine as ‘the alcoholic drink of millionaires.’”

A 2012 study by CITIES found that the most common use for horn powder in Vietnam has indeed been as a hangover cure. Since rhino horn costs around $1,400 per ounce, it is the same price as gold (and more expensive than cocaine). It is Vietnam’s nouveau riche who can meet that price point– the number of multimillionaires in Vietnam has risen 150% in the past 5 years. 

And they are ready to flaunt their hard-earned riches. As wildlife specialist Douglas Hendrie told Asia Pacific:

“You find people using rhino horn much the same way you might own a two-car garage. But rather than parking your two Mercedes Benz in the garage, you park them out on the driveway so your neighbors can see them. And so it’s a form of conspicuous consumption, gifting out rhino horn to colleagues or bosses or winning or earning favor by doing so, or just showing off.”

For all the claims that rhino horns are cancer cures and hangover remedies, do they actually work? Medical experts say that, at best, they’re about the same as taking an aspirin or chewing your nails. And yet, rhinos keep dying because sometimes bad ideas just spread.

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