VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

Has Demand for Rhino Horn Truly Dropped in Vietnam?

By Scott I. Roberton

Recently, the Humane Society International (HSI) and the Vietnam CITES Management Authority (MA) announced that in the last year there has been a 77 percent decrease in the number of people who buy or use rhino horn in Hanoi. If accurate, this finding is an incredibly promising sign of success. Nevertheless, the announcement was met with skepticism by many conservationists, demanding greater scrutiny of the findings. With that in mind, here are some key questions we should be asking.

Northern White Rhino, Kenya, 2014.  Photo ©Naomi Doak
Northern white rhinos, Kenya, 2014. Only a handful of this white rhino subspecies are believed to remain. Photo ©Naomi Doak

Are statistically robust monitoring frameworks of consumer attitudes and behaviors in place?
To understand changes in consumer behavior and the intention of individuals to purchase or consume rhino horn in the future (distinct from their simply being aware of the legal and conservation issues involved) requires rigorously collected social and market data.

To date, there have only been four consumer studies focused on rhino horn in Vietnam (2012–2013), each designed with different objectives and data collection methods. These surveys can be broadly characterized as having a restricted sample size, varying in how representative they are. Importantly, they all had different objectives and therefore adopted different methods and asked different questions.

While individually valuable, these surveys are insufficiently consistent to be useful in measuring trends in consumer behavior.

Seized ivory tusks and rhino horn, with a street value of around four million Euro, are seen at the Hong Kong Customs and Excise headquarters in Hong Kong, China, August 2013. Photo ©Alex Hofford
Seized ivory tusks and rhino horn, with a street value of around four million Euro, are seen at the Hong Kong Customs and Excise headquarters in Hong Kong, China, August 2013. Photo ©Alex Hofford

Do other indicators suggest a similar conclusion?
As awareness increases that buying or consuming rhino horn is a crime, fewer people will likely be willing to openly admit in an interview that they do it. So consumer-focused surveys alone are insufficient to draw reliable conclusions on the demand for rhino horn. Furthermore, whilst consumer awareness-raising initiatives are a critical component to demand reduction, alone they do not provide a comprehensive solution.

In Vietnam, government action (or, too often, inaction) is a critically important driver of illegal consumer behavior. In the past, the government has influenced traditional consumptive behaviors of its citizens primarily through policy and effective law enforcement.

In 1995, for instance, Vietnam enacted a ban on firecrackers that had been used in traditional lunar New Year celebrations for hundreds of years with no awareness effort. That ban remains effectively in force. So in addition to analyses of consumer survey data, it is helpful to look at other indicators of a change in demand:

• The informal nature of the rhino horn trade in Vietnam precludes regular, standardized surveys to assess market availability, but anecdotal information suggests that online sales and traders continue to provide horns to Vietnamese consumers and also to Chinese customers visiting Vietnam.

Anecdotal information suggests that online sales and traders continue to provide horns to Vietnamese consumers and also to Chinese customers visiting Vietnam. Photo ©Tran Xuan Viet
Anecdotal information suggests that online sales and traders continue to provide horns to Vietnamese consumers and also to Chinese customers visiting Vietnam. Photo ©Trinh Tuan Ngoc.

• While celebrities tell us that “when the buying stops, the killing will too,” for now the claim that demand is falling in Vietnam does not reflect a decrease in rhino poaching in Africa. Perhaps we are seeing a time lag effect and poaching will decline eventually. Or demand has declined in Vietnam but significant volumes of rhino horn continue to be purchased elsewhere. But it is also possible that greater public awareness is not translating into a decrease in rhino horn demand.

• Despite the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s directive earlier this year asking law enforcement agencies to improve their responses to rhino horn trafficking, there has been no noticeable increase in arrests, prosecutions, or effective punishments directed toward either buyers or dealers. In the period between August 2013 and August 2014, four persons were arrested for transporting rhino horn, compared to five persons in the preceding 12-month period.

Do we really understand the demand markets for rhino horn?
While Vietnamese nationals have been implicated in hunting rhinos and trafficking rhino horns in (and from) South Africa, the identification of Vietnam as the main market and destination for rhino horns was perhaps made prematurely. Consumer surveys in other Asian states where rhino horn consumption is known or suspected to occur have been limited. However, one such survey showed a significant level of demand for rhino horn among Chinese consumers.

This large seizure of wildlife products, bound from Nigeria and disguised as timber inside two containers, is the latest in a recent surge of wildlife seizures that underscore Hong Kong's role as a pivotal transhipment point for illicit wildlife products bound from Africa. Photo  ©Alex Hofford
This large seizure of wildlife products, bound from Nigeria and disguised as timber inside two containers, is the latest in a recent surge of wildlife seizures that underscore Hong Kong’s role as a pivotal transhipment point for illicit wildlife products bound from Africa. Photo ©Alex Hofford

How do we assess the impact of individual campaigns?
While there are a variety of pressures on donors, NGOs, and governments to measure the impact of individual campaigns, the reality is that such assessments are both extremely hard and of questionable value. Over the past year in Vietnam, many conservation NGOs have aired public service announcements on TV and radio, hosted celebrity missions to Africa, and conducted outreach events with corporations, among other actions. It is difficult to reliably measure which had the greatest impact in changing perceptions and behaviors.

Has demand for rhino horn dropped in Vietnam?
To answer this question requires a robust monitoring program that consists of repeated, standardized surveys of consumers on the one hand and an assessment of policies, poaching rates, and enforcement measures on the other – facilitated by coordination between government and non-government groups.

 

The growing middle class in China is driving the market for rhino horn, for which merchants make bogus claims of its efficacy as a medicinal tonic.
The growing middle class in China is driving the market for rhino horn, sold in a tonic promoted with bogus claims of having medicinal properties.

It is premature to say whether there has been a genuine behavior change among consumers towards buying rhino horn in Vietnam and even more so to suggest what may have caused it. But it represents no setback to acknowledge that. In wildlife conservation victories come slowly and methodically. When the fate of a species hangs in the balance we owe it to ourselves to rigorously scrutinize our efforts before declaring victory.

————————————————
Scott I. Roberton is Vietnam Country Director and Regional Coordinator for Wildlife Trafficking programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Comments

  1. kathleen dryden
    australia
    November 10, 2014, 2:08 am

    I think that China needs to be educated. Not racist but what ever country supports animal cruelty needs to be shown for what they are.
    Some countries who do not have any concern for humans CERTAINLY will not have any concern for animals.

  2. Anthony Onuoha
    Italy
    November 8, 2014, 5:09 pm

    I like rhino be coz is a quite animal, the hurn of rhino and elephant has been use to produce of hard speshies

  3. Rebecca lane-nohl
    Colognia Germany
    November 4, 2014, 5:11 pm

    *concrete evidence

  4. Rebecca lane-nohl
    Cologne Germany
    November 4, 2014, 5:09 pm

    I was very recently browsing in a Third World shop for Fairtrade and was horrified to See on Display an Arm braclet, labeled,Vietnam Horn! The Sweet Old lady, a volonteer worker was rather flustered when I asked from which Animal the Horn was from? I can only assume it was from the very animal we Are Trying to Protect. I will try and investigate it further and See if i can grain more Conference evidence.

  5. Wildlife Margrit
    November 4, 2014, 2:30 pm

    That last paragraph was supposed to read:

    Thank you both for doing what you can, along with so many others. towards accomplishing this… our planet’s wild animals and birds depend on it.

  6. Wildlife Margrit
    November 4, 2014, 2:27 pm

    Thank you Scott for the article and thank you Douglas for the additional insights. For the rhino and other species to be preserved from exploitation the demand in Asia and elsewhere for wildlife body parts must be curbed.
    Thank you both for doing along with so many others to work towards accomplishing this… our planet’s wild animals and birds depend on it.

  7. Louise Joubert
    South Africa
    November 4, 2014, 12:25 pm

    Maybe just an irresponsible PR exercise by the Humane Society in order to justify to their donors that they are indeed “doing” something to help protect rhinos? Let face it many large charities like to claim success where accolades are not really due. Sad but true! The situation on the ground in South Africa however tells a very different story!

  8. Rhishja Cota-Larson
    California
    November 4, 2014, 12:24 pm

    Thank you, Scott, for so eloquently saying what needed to be said about this.

  9. Douglas Hendrie
    Hanoi/Washington DC
    November 3, 2014, 11:34 pm

    Response on the article by Scott Roberton
    November 3, 2014

    I fully agree with the position as stated by Scott Roberton. I have worked for 18 years in Vietnam on wildlife protection, most of these with Education for Nature – Vietnam (ENV), a Vietnamese organization serving on the front lines in efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade. While I also share concern over the credibility of the data suggesting that the campaign has yielded success, I also feel that reporting this alleged success is nothing less than irresponsible. Our efforts on the ground suggest that there has not been any significant reduction of demand for rhino horn in Vietnam as reported by the Humane Society of the US.

    But of greater concern, what message does this claim of success send to the Vietnamese government? I can see only one likely result; “Vietnam no longer has a problem and we have a study to prove it.”

    A year ago, I joined a group of Vietnamese delegates to South Africa. Among the delegates were a senior police commander and a politician from the National Assembly. During initial interviews with journalists in South Africa, the delegates argued that Vietnam should not be blamed for the killing of rhinos as there was no proof that rhino horn was in demand in Vietnam. After a week of discussion and more than a year of efforts, the government has come around to acknowledge the problem and efforts have slowly begun to address both enforcement and consumer demand. This process started with admission that there is a problem. From there, we are able to move toward mobilizing government support to address the problem.

    However, those of us working to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and keep the government engaged, cannot help but feel that the Humane Society US study has set our efforts back, by providing a plausible excuse for key elements within the government suggesting that the situation is under control in Vietnam. This belief can result in only one outcome, inaction. Moreover, this questionable claim of success is poorly timed, coming at a time when record numbers of rhinos are being slaughtered in Africa and smuggling and trade continues as normal (there have been two arrests in the past week of Vietnamese nationals smuggling horns back to Vietnam, one in Johannesburg involving a record number of horns!).

    On behalf of those working on reducing consumer demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, we welcome the participation of others in this fight. It cannot be won alone. However, we expect that such participation is responsible in nature with consideration given to how the “spin” impacts the government of Vietnam and the efforts of those of us that are working tirelessly over many years now to end the killing of rhinos in Africa.

  10. John Platt
    Portland
    November 3, 2014, 6:52 pm

    Very well argued. This is why I didn’t report on this claim.