A recent survey study has found the thirst for rhino horn in Vietnam is dropping. Michael Tatarski talks to some organisations behind campaigns that have helped effect this change.

In 2003, just 22 rhinos were poached in South Africa, home to 70 percent of the world’s rhinos. A decade later, in 2013, 1,004 of the endangered animals were killed in the country.

Vietnam, along with China, has become a global hotspot in the illegal wildlife trade, especially when it comes to rhino horn. During the 1990s, rhino horn was almost worthless here but thanks to the surge in demand over the past few years it is worth more than gold, around USD $100,000 per kilogram.

Several years ago, a story spread that a man had been cured of cancer after he ingested ground rhino horn. No details were ever confirmed and there is no basis for horn to be used for cancer in traditional Chinese medicine but, around the same time, demand for rhino horn exploded.

This forced conservation agencies to rethink their strategy. Several organisations instead began looking towards the destinations for rhino horns being taken from Africa and focus instead on the end users.

Education and Awareness
 The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is the main international agreement regarding the wildlife trade. The 180 member states of CITES meet every three years. At last year’s assembly in Bangkok, Vietnam was identified as the main consumer of rhino horn and ordered to undertake action to reduce demand.

According to Thuong Nguyen, International Cooperation Officer for Vietnam’s CITES Management Authority, such declarations are legally binding, and so the Vietnamese government tasked the authority to create such an effort.

The organisation then teamed up with the Humane Society International (HSI), a Washington DC-based conservation agency. “We don’t have many resources or technical experience to implement these very difficult issues,” Thuong explains from Hanoi.

Teresa Telecky, Director of the Wildlife Department at HSI, says her group benefitted from the arrangement because they had no staff on the ground in Vietnam and had little understanding of the local culture. “All of the ideas for how to conduct the campaign came from inside CITES,” she says.

The first thing CITES and HSI did was hire Nielsen to conduct a survey of 1,000 people in six of Vietnam’s biggest cities: Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hai Phong, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Can Tho in August of last year. The survey results showed the users and buyers of rhino horn were of all ages and came from all segments of society, including men and women, the relatively wealthy and the middle class.

The results prompted CITES and HSI to approach the Hanoi Women’s Association, which has over 800,000 members. “Our study showed that most of the buyers of horn in Vietnam are women because normally they are the ones who take care of the family,” Thuong says. When CITES explained that rhino horn has no medicinal properties and is mostly made up of keratin, the same material in human finger nails, many women were shocked.

The illegality of using rhino horn was another emphasis. “Women are very serious on law enforcement, and when they learned how buying horn was illegal and that you could get up to seven years in jail for buying it, that had a dramatic effect.”

A children’s book titled I’m a Little Rhino was also distributed to a few thousand school children in Hanoi. “For the kids, we tried to convince them to protect the rhinos because they are cute and nice,” Thuong says. This effort garnered such a response it will be expanded next year, with funding received to deliver the book to every primary school student in the Hanoi area.

The demand reduction campaign also targeted businessmen with the message that they are wasting their money on rhino horn because it has no medicinal value. Billboards at shopping malls, Noi Bai International Airport and intersections in Hanoi also explained the legal consequences of buying rhino horn.

The result of this effort has been significant. A new Nielsen poll conducted this past August showed a 38 percent decrease in people buying and using rhino horn from the previous year. The survey also showed that 38 percent of people still think rhino horn has medical value, down from 51 percent. The drops in these statistics were even more dramatic in Hanoi.

“It is encouraging that after just one year demand has significantly reduced,” Thuong says. “We think we need to maintain the momentum and repeat the activities because if we stop the demand will return.”

However, some prominent conservationists have criticised CITES and HSI for celebrating prematurely, especially as rhinos continue to be killed every day. Telecky is quick to point out that they realise this is a long-term effort.

“One thing I sense from some of the criticism is that because we’ve seen this success in one year, we’re all going to walk away from it, including the government of Vietnam, and I can tell you that’s not the case.”

Thuong agrees that the efforts will continue, as the issue has become one of national pride.

“Frankly speaking, the demand for horn in Vietnam is a small number of people but it is seriously damaging our reputation at international conferences. This is why we don’t want that situation to continue and we want to show that we can cooperate with other countries,” she says.

A Narrower Approach
Lynn Johnson, director of Breaking the Brand, an Australian nonprofit dedicated to eradicating misinformation about rhino horn’s benefits, is taking a more precisely targeted method towards reducing demand. “It happened that, at that time [late 2012], there was a lot of talk about rhino poaching rising. I thought this is the one that is most urgent,” she says from Melbourne. She envisioned rhino horn as a brand, saying “brands can be made and they can be broken – how do we break the brand for the primary users to stop the demand?”

Johnson and her organisation also saw a need for greater effort in reducing demand at the other end of the supply chain. She used her network of Vietnamese contacts in Melbourne to reach wealthy people, whom she had determined were most likely to buy and use rhino horn, in Hanoi and HCMC.

“Through my interviews, I found there are only two motivations to stop using rhino horn: if using it negatively impacts my status, and if using negatively impacts my health or the health of friends, family or colleagues,” says Johnson.

Breaking the Brand decided to focus their campaign on this health angle, and one effort taking place in Africa aided this. Organisations in Africa have begun infusing rhino horns with neurotoxins while they are still on the living animals. These toxins pose no threat to individual rhinos, as their horn serves no biological purpose. However, they are dangerous for humans to ingest after a horn is crushed and inhaled or mixed into a drink.

This information was communicated to rhino horn users through a series of six advertisements, the last of which will run this month, in prominent business and women’s magazines in Vietnam.

“The primary focus of the ads is the infusion process and the danger of potentially buying toxic horn and giving it to a business contact or your child,” Johnson says. The goal is to educate the users so they can make an informed decision. “Education and awareness-raising are necessary for a sustainable change, but they won’t necessarily get a quick change.”