Africa is facing a growing epidemic: the slaughter of rhinos.
So far this year, South Africa has lost more than 290 rhinos — an average of at least two a day. That puts the country on track to set yet another record after poachers killed 668 rhinos in 2012.
Behind the rise in killings are international criminal syndicates and global economic change. Poachers have gone high-tech, using helicopters, silencers and night vision goggles to meet the growing demand for rhino horn in East Asia, especially Vietnam.
Some newly rich Vietnamese believe rhino horn — used in traditional Chinese medicine — can now treat all kinds of illnesses. Last year in Vietnam, rhino horn sold for up to $1,400 an ounce, which is about the price of gold.
The power of East Asian demand was on stark display last year after South African authorities confiscated a videotape hunters made of an illegal rhino kill.
In the video, a hunter fires on a rhino as it shades itself beneath a tree in a game reserve. The rhino tries to escape, emitting a high-pitched cry, before eventually being brought down by steady gunfire.
In the next scene — yes, the poachers kept taping — South African hunters and Southeast Asian wildlife traffickers count stacks of money to pay for the horn. Steve Galster, executive director of the anti-trafficking Freeland Foundation in Bangkok, obtained a copy of the tape and explains: "They will be buying this horn for tens of thousands of dollars in South Africa and selling some sets of horns over in Southeast Asia for up to $1 million."
Wealth And Medical Misinformation Drive Killing
Conservationists say much of Africa's rhino horn ends up in Vietnam. On a single day in January, authorities detained two Vietnamese men in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, trying to smuggle a total of almost 60 pounds of African horn worth a combined $1.5 million.
"The smuggling of rhino horn has been on our radar since 2006," says Douglas Hendrie, a technical adviser to Education for Nature, a Vietnamese nongovernmental organization.
Hendrie says demand has been driven by sudden wealth and medicinal misinformation, including Internet rumors that rhino horn can cure cancer. In surveys, users say they believe rhino horn improves general health, prevents illness and treats about 30 different ailments, including hangovers.
"Like a fad, it's become popular," says Hendrie, who says using rhino horn is now a status symbol. "It's the thing to do. It's gifted. What a great gift for your boss, or ... government official."
That's how Bui Thanh, a retired official who used to approve construction projects in the Vietnamese government, got his stash of rhino horn. Bui began taking rhino horn to recover from drinking binges with contractors.
"Every time I drank alcohol, I'd go home and grind the horn and drink it," says Bui, a 65-year-old grandfather of two. "An hour later, I'd throw up and feel sober again."
Sitting at his breakfast table, he unwraps a piece of newspaper to reveal a small, gray block of rhino horn he received as a gift. Bui pours water into a specially made bowl with a rough bottom and grinds the block of horn into a milky, white liquid.
The grinding creates an odor that smells like burned hair. That's because rhino horn contains keratin, the main component in fingernails and hair. He says that as the value of rhino horn grew, it became a kind of currency.
"People use rhino horn as gifts to trade for a better job or trade for some benefits," says Bui. "This piece used to cost $100 in the past and now it costs $1,000."
Rhino horn prices are so high, some medicine shops sell fake rhino horn made from buffalo horn. Bui says some people even make rhino horn out of industrial plastic.
High Profit, Low Risk
Given the staggering price both consumers and the rhinos themselves are paying, does rhino horn actually do anything? Vu Quoc Trung, a traditional medicine doctor who works out of a Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi, thinks it has some limited value.
"According to ancient medicine books, there are only three uses for rhino horn," says Vu. "The first is to decrease temperature, the second is to detoxify and the third is to improve blood quality."
Contrary to popular myth in the West, rhino horn was never traditionally viewed as an aphrodisiac.
As for all the other ailments some doctors here prescribe it for — such as cancer — Vu doesn't buy it.
"They do it for their profit, for their business," he says. "Personally, I have seen a lot of rhino horn, a lot of my patients have brought it here, but I don't see any special effects."
In fact, after China banned the rhino horn trade in 1993, it was removed from traditional medicine books in the country.
As with most illegal products, rhino horn's real demand isn't easy to gauge, but Bat Trang, a porcelain-making village outside Hanoi, offers some clues. This is where Bui bought his rhino-grinding bowl.
Nguyen Thi Le Hang owns a factory here that's made rhino bowls for at least the past decade. Nguyen says when she started, some of her best customers were hard-drinking pilots.
"I used to sell 2,000 grinding bowls a month to the airport," says Nguyen, 56, as she crouches on the floor of her shop. "Most pilots are men. They are not very careful with their belongings and they break the bowls all the time."
Last year, Nguyen says, she sold 10,000 bowls.
TRAFFIC, a global organization that tracks the wildlife trade, says no other country has a grinding-bowl industry like Vietnam's. Naomi Doak, the group's coordinator in Hanoi, says the rhino horn trade has flourished here because there isn't a lot of enforcement.
"Here is something that is high profit and low risk," says Doak. "If you get caught, you might get a fine, you might get a slap on the wrist. That's it."
Efforts To Change Public Opinion
Vietnam insists it strictly prohibits the illegal trade in wild animals. Last year, it signed a memorandum of understanding with South Africa to cooperate on the issue. Conservationists think the key to reducing demand is education.
Nguyen Quan, who works in the wildlife crimes unit of Education for Nature, uses public awareness campaigns to debunk rhino horn myths. He tells anyone who will listen that rhino horn is basically a grossly overpriced placebo.
"We have a kind of banner saying rhino horn and people's nails are not different," Nguyen says. "So instead of using rhino horn, why don't we just chew our nails?"
South Africa is home to more than 20,000 rhinos, the vast majority of the global rhino population. Getting people in Vietnam to focus on a creature so far away isn't easy. Bui, the government official who took rhino horn for hangovers, said protecting the animal isn't his problem.
"It should be the responsibility of the South African government. It can't be Vietnam's," he says, reflexively. "In Vietnam, if people have money, they have the right to buy it."
Some rhino horn users, though, seem to be having a change of heart. A woman named Duong, 50, who works in international trade, says she used to take rhino horn as a general health tonic, but found it didn't do much, so she stopped using it.
Now, she feels guilty.
"I bought this horn a very long time ago, about seven years ago, and since then, I've heard a lot about rare and precious animals being killed," she says, sitting in her living room with a flat-screen TV and Italian marble floors. "I feel really sorry about that and I would not buy any animal products again."
How many others rhino horn users here are coming to the same conclusion is anyone's guess, but the rhino's survival may depend on it.