Peter Cornish connects with organisations that are attempting to raise awareness about the horrible rhino horn trade that passes through Vietnam.

In April 2010, the decaying carcass of the last Javan rhino to live in Vietnam was found in Cat Tien National Park. Poached. Slaughtered for its horn. Rhino populations are in crisis globally. Close to extinction. Driven by the demand for their horn, believed by many to hold magical properties.

Vietnam is the biggest hub for trafficked rhino horns and other body parts, fuelling the demand that drives poachers in Africa. Official figures put the number of rhinos slaughtered annually at well over 1000, with the bulk of them ending up in Vietnam, smuggled by criminal gangs cashing in on the lucrative trade.

Little has been done to stem the flow, with the country still to launch one successful high-profile prosecution for the illegal trade. International bodies, such as the World Wildlife Fund, are applying pressure, and in 2012 the government signed an agreement with South Africa to start controlling the trade. Yet with an increasing affluent middle class keen to show their new-found wealth, the demand for horn increases and it seems little is being done to stop it.

Rhino horn is highly sought after by wealthy Vietnamese. Not only a symbol of wealth and power, it’s connected to success in business and seen culturally as an indication of high social accomplishment.

Underlying these cultural beliefs is a long tradition of its medical use, with many believing it can cure anything from a winter cold, to cancer, and even HIV. There are even those who believe its properties can provide prowess in bed. None of these beliefs are supported by science.

Yet despite a picture of negativity and gloom surrounding Vietnam’s role in poaching rhinos and the trade of their horns, many, particularly the country’s youth, are working to raise awareness of this problem.

In 2014, a communication and education campaign was launched by the US’s WildAid, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the Vietnamese non-governmental organization CHANGE. Its purpose was to raise awareness of the rhino horn crisis and urge people to stop consuming this product. Called simply “Stop Using Rhino Horn”, the campaign carries an equally simple message – “when the buying stops, the killing can too.”

Over the last 3 years, the campaign has gathered support from some of the biggest names in Vietnamese showbiz and used their influence to reach a large audience. Dozens of TV channels, advertising groups and media companies have donated their resources to communicate with millions of followers nationwide.

In 2015, Youth Vietnamese activists held a rally – “Back to Dust and Sand” – in support of World Rhino Day. They staged a memorial service for the 750 rhinos already killed that year, dressing in black, carrying flowers and holding protest signs. Their goal was to send a message to the international community that “people of Vietnam also love and care about protecting nature and wildlife.”

The event culminated in the laying of two white roses on two black coffins, symbolising the two South African national parks, Kruger Atu and Krugerati, where the majority of poaching takes place. They succeeded in their goal – message was powerful and provoked strong emotions among the Vietnamese youth community.

AsiaLIFE caught up with CHANGE Programme Manager, Nhi Thoi, to talk about their latest initiative in the ongoing campaign, a series of urban street art murals around the city. “Rhinos are close to extinction around the world and people are blaming Vietnam a lot. Through our campaigns, we hope to change what people think. Our key message is ‘don’t consume rhino products’.” Nhi explained.

CHANGE has worked with local artists in the past.  “In this latest project, we wanted to work with them again, giving artists the chance to show their work and help develop the local art community. We also wanted to use art as means of communicating to the public about social issues” Nhi told me.

Finding artists keen to get involved was easy. Getting permission to paint on walls wasn’t. After prolonged time they found a space in Nguyen Thai Binh ward that was due for renovation as a tourist site. They proposed their project, and it was accepted. After another lengthy process they managed to get permission to paint murals in 12 locations around District 1, and the project started.

Moving forward, CHANGE started the process of selecting artists for the project and choosing appropriate imagery. To lead the initiative, they reached out to an artist who had worked with them before, Trang Suby, when he had painted a rhino filled with signatures in the first year of the campaign.

“The idea to paint murals outside for attention and involvement is great. Street art is a good media to use, it catches attention and is sustainable.” Trang explained. Time was short and images needed to be sent for approval before they could be painted. Each artist was given the freedom to produce their own design, with instructions for keeping the images positive.

“We didn’t want to use sad and negative designs or depressing colours. The owners of some walls asked us not to use red, because of its association with bad luck, and others wanted us to consider the feng shui of our designs. We played the game and our designs got approval.” Trang told me.

11 artists in total – traditional, urban, graffiti and graphic – foreign and Vietnamese, have joined together to produce some of the country’s best urban art. Combining modern and traditional techniques they are using their art to raise awareness of the rhino’s’ plight, and encourage the community to think more about this world problem.

The largest painting – The Shadow of the Rhino – is in black and white, on the corner of Nguyen Van Cuu and Vo Van Kiet. It’s a painting of the last Javan Rhino from Cat Tien National Park. But there is no rhino in the picture, only a shadow. It’s an image that reminds us of what will happen if we don’t stop this shameful trade.