A version of this article appeared in the July-September issue of Swara, the membership magazine of the East African Wild Life Society, located in Nairobi, Kenya.
Two years ago, acting as the presenter, I was filming with a German TV team in a new casino town on the border between Laos and China. In such semi-autonomous enclaves, built on leased territory, the laws of the countries on either side of the border go out the window. Gambling, prostitution, drugs, and illegal wildlife consumption become the main economic activities. The wildlife-related enterprises, including the establishment of bear bile farms, were what we were looking into. As we walked the streets we came across two clouded leopard cubs hidden in a cardboard box. The species is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. I took them out and played with them while the camera was rolling, until the owner started protesting and put an end to it.
In the meantime our translator was approached by a truck driver, who had his vehicle parked nearby and who had witnessed the commotion. He told our guide that if we were interested, there were two tiger cubs a few hours away that were for sale. He gave us the address, and subsequently we went off to find the place, toward the center of Laos. When we got there we found out that the cubs had been sold to a Vietnamese buyer two days earlier for $4,000. I decided to follow up on that story on a later visit with a friend who was a cameraman. To learn more, we hired the Laotian hunters who had procured the tiger cubs. Using a cow as bait, they had killed the mother tiger with a land mine and then caught the cubs, which were sold via family members living near the main road. We also hired a Vietnamese who lived in Laos as a guide and translator; he was going to try to help us track down what had become of the cubs in Vietnam. Our group first traveled to the area in Laos where the mother tiger was killed and then crossed into northern Vietnam, heading toward what those involved thought was the most likely final destination. It was then that we learned that our Vietnamese translator had fled from Vietnam and settled in Laos a few years earlier. His brother had been arrested for trafficking heroin and sent up for twenty years to a high-security prison near Hanoi; the authorities had then started looking for our translator. This was the first time he had returned to his home country, and he got an enthusiastic welcome from some of his family members. Evidently wildlife and drug trafficking were in totally different leagues when it came to national law enforcement priorities. Whereas our translator’s brother got a twenty-year sentence for drugs, when it came to discussing tiger and tiger-bone trafficking, nobody seemed the least bit worried about any kind of law enforcement.
Our translator, who had also trafficked in wildlife and tiger bones in the past, introduced us to some of the well-known dealers in a nearby town. We were offered so-called tiger cake or jelly (a residue boiled down from tiger bone), tiger claws and teeth, and also a slab of rhinoceros horn marked as weighing eighty-nine grams, a little over three ounces. The next morning we sent our translator back to the dealer who had the slab of what he said was—and what looked like—rhino horn, to buy $100 worth of it. The transaction was documented with a hidden camera. The dealer then also invited our man to come to the kitchen, where a tiger skeleton was being boiled down into tiger cake
We realized that wildlife traders in these parts were not just dealing in one product line, but in any wildlife items that would offer a good return. (As a matter of fact, we had seen tiger bone cake pieces and tiger claws and teeth in a special sales display case in the lobby of the Vietnamese hotel where we had been staying in Dien Bien Phu, and the hotel menu was full of “forest food” items such as pangolin, porcupine, and turtle.) It also became clear that irrespective of the particular products they sold—whether tiger, ivory, or rhino horn—the traders we met were all potential sources of information on all of these items. So while still trying to track down the tiger cubs, we started a new project: looking into rhino horn—its prices, availability, uses, and so on.
Our survey took us to Traditional Chinese Medicine shops in the Old Town of Hanoi. When it came to rhino horn, we were clearly told that it did not have any kind of aphrodisiac qualities, which many Westerners assume must be the reason the product is valued in Asia. (We were offered alternatives, however.) Instead we were told that it reduced fever and cleansed the body, especially after bouts of overconsumption of alcohol, food, and drugs. In the course of our investigations, we met dealers who said the product could be beneficial in the treatment of a variety of other ailments, ranging from epilepsy, hepatitis, high blood pressure, and rash to snakebite, the bite of a rabid dog, and cancer. But most were more reserved in their claims.
Since this was just at the start of the national lunar new year (Tet) festivities, one dealer invited us to his family quarters above his shop for a glass of rice wine and then freely showed us tiger bone cake, claws, a rhino horn, elephant skin, and other items. After we drank some of the rice wine and again bought a very small sample of what the dealer represented as rhino horn, the lady of the house opened a brown plastic bag and offered us all a sampling of powdered horn, which she instructed us to sprinkle into our rice wine. She assured us that no matter how much we drank during the holidays, we would not have a hangover. The dealer explained that rhino horn was only for the very rich, and our guide backed that up with some anecdotes of his own, illustrating that the demand on the Vietnam side was already high and increasing in line with the increasing affluence of some of the elite. Handing out rhino horn had become one way to illustrate that one had “arrived.” Our hosts also sold us the tool with which to grind down our own piece of horn into powder—a ceramic plate with a rough inner surface. A rhino drawing decorated the rim. (When we returned in 2012 to the same family for the same new year’s celebrations, the wife was on her own. Her husband had died of liver cancer—a result of too much drinking, she believed. So much for the rhino horn cure.)
We confirmed the nature of the demand for rhino horn over and over again when talking to other dealers. Many did not want to discuss the sale of small samples, but were only interested in negotiating big items priced in the tens of thousands of dollars. They were accustomed to dealing with people of means, not tourists looking for a few grams. The possession of rhino horn is a status symbol like a Mercedes or diamond ring. Wall-mounted trophies, including many African ungulate horns (set on molded plastic heads covered in cow skin), also belong in this category. We were told that rhino horn pieces were also used to bribe officials and were offered generally as a present to people in power.
Since the original trip in 2010 I have been back three more times to Laos and Vietnam, and I am convinced that Vietnam is today one of the key end-consumer
countries for rhino horn, tiger bone, and bear bile products. In addition, though, with each trip it became more and more evident that the rhino horn on sale was mostly fake. When subjected to DNA analysis, the samples from the first trip all turned out to be pieces of water buffalo horn. So on subsequent trips my translators and I started to become more discriminating, telling dealers that we had been taken for a ride with buffalo horn in the past, and we wanted to see and discuss prices for the real stuff.
Our local translator got on the Internet and found thirty-five dealers advertising horn. We made appointments and met with some of them. By now we knew that, as a foreigner, I was looked at with suspicion. The concern was not so much about enforcement being triggered by offering us a product that was illegal under national and international laws. (At most that might necessitate paying a bribe.) Rather, dealers figured that we were not big players who would be willing to spend thousands of dollars for a whole horn or a big piece.
At this stage I was joined by a German print media journalist, and we sent our local investigator off on his own with a hidden camera to do some negotiations to buy horn. We had now refined our cover story. Our local investigator explained that he was looking for horn for a friend in China’s Yunnan province who had been cheated with fake horn, and he only wanted very small samples at this point to have it checked out. He then would come back for more if it turned out to be the real thing.
On the last trip we also extended our survey to some of the main towns in Laos. We concluded that some of the key dealers there used the even more relaxed enforcement regime in Laos to import rhino horn and export the product, without any problems, to neighboring China and Vietnam. Again we found rhino horn offered in a range of outlets. With one exception, it all was said to be from Asian animals, with many of the sellers insisting there were still Javan and Sumatran rhinos in the so-called hill tribe areas of Laos. Actually, it is doubtful that there are any rhinos left in Laos today. Any genuine Asian horn comes from India and Nepal via Myanmar and the Mekong River. The last indigenous Vietnamese rhino was declared to have perished shortly before our first visit. An exception to the Asian rule was one purported African horn. While a fairly good imitation, it incorporated features of what we also saw in the Asian horns, and as such it was evident that whoever produced it had not seen many real African horns.
A majority of the horns on sale in retail settings were fake: probably 90 percent of end consumers would unknowingly purchase products made of water buffalo or other bovine horn. The horn on offer tends to be either cut slabs or tips, indicating that it mostly comes from polished and modified water buffalo horns. When asked for the base of a horn, which is easier to identify, dealers typically claim that, because it is the most valuable part, it was sold first, so only the tips are left. We even filmed in a factory where people prepared the tips of water buffalo horn to make them look more polished and more like the tips of rhino horns.
In fact, a wide range of methods are available to the knowledgeable to test the authenticity of a piece of horn, apart from analyzing its DNA. These include noting the lighter weight compared to bovine horn; judging the density of the material when cutting with a metal saw; shining a bright beam through part of the horn (to see the color and texture); observing the color of the “milky” solution when powder is mixed with water or rice wine; tapping the material with a fingernail and analyzing the sound; burning a corner to test the smell; and pulling off some individual fibers (this last seems one of the most reliable ways to identify real rhino horn). Still, it is something of a guessing game when it comes to pieces of horn (with an intact horn it is a different story).
So-called rhino horn is openly available not just in Traditional Chinese Medicine shops, but also in some jewelry outlets and souvenir markets generally visited by tourists. We did not verify a single case of active enforcement of laws against wildlife trade, or of any prosecutions of hunters or dealers. A dealer in northern Vietnam told us that a drug enforcement unit had recently visited him and taken some of his horn, telling him that he would be paid later—a sign of corruption in law enforcement. Of course, a lot of dealers know they are dealing with fake horn products, and as such consider themselves to be “legal.”
Dealers did not necessarily have rhino horn on hand, but often assured us that they could procure it. Prices quoted at the wholesale level to buy a whole or a large chunk of a horn, based on weight, were pretty uniformly $40,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) for Asian horn and $20,000 for African horn. (Asian horns are much smaller than the African ones, yet it requires the same amount of work to bring down an animal and transport the horn.) More recently, though, we heard of a dealer wanting $50,000 per kilogram of African horn. Because they are small, Asian rhino horn fakes are much more realistic, since the base is generally imitated as well, but there are also obvious fakes. Wealthy customers who buy whole horns have trusted experts doing the verification for them. These players view rhino horn as a status symbol and possibly also as an investment opportunity, since prices are bound to go up as the supply gets more restricted.
Traditional Chinese Medicine outlets do trade in small quantities, and then rhino horn becomes a retail product, and the prices go up. For example, in Chinatown in Jakarta, for about $50, we bought a sample packaged in a small glass vial that officially stated the weight to be 0.3 grams. A kilogram, at that price, would bring in more than $165,000. With imitation products, more flexibility existed in negotiations (and the product might be handled with less concern: in one case a sample of horn was cut for us from a bigger piece with a hammer and chisel, with bits flying all over the shop).
The grinding plates, too, have now gone “upscale.” The latest accessory is a motorized contraption. The grinding plate is made from an imported Japanese clay
(believed to be less toxic) and mounted on a rotating platform operated by a supposedly Japanese motor. The piece of horn is fixed above the plate in a type of metal vise and, with the machine turned on, lowered to the grinding surface. It is ground with or without the addition of water. The pamphlet included with the very
fancy packaging promises that rhino horn can cure otherwise incurable diseases.
The main import-export dealers are well-established businessmen involved in all kinds of related activities. One key Laotian importer hands out a business card
showing that he is the head of the chamber of commerce for his district and the deputy head of certain community associations. One of his other operations is a macaque breeding farm, but many of the monkeys he sells as “captive bred” are actually imports, caught in the wild in Thailand and Cambodia. Most are exported to the United States for medical research. He is also about to expand his tiger farm. Dealers on this level often hire “mules,” just as in the drug trade, to get the merchandise to their headquarters. If anything should go wrong at the international level they can disassociate themselves from any such transaction. They deal with the product once it is safely past the border. They seem to have little to worry about, however. According to a maker of the grinding machines, whole horn is mostly transferred from African countries to Vietnam by foreign delegations, whose luggage is not inspected. As a test, I recently bought a well-done imitation horn from a U.S. store that supplies all kinds of skulls and bones, and transported the product openly in my checked baggage across half a dozen international borders, expecting somebody to detect the shape on an X-ray machine and question me. It never happened.
During a recent tiger conservation meeting in Bangkok, sponsored by the World Bank and with Interpol, CITES, and the World Customs Organization in attendance, I asked the chair why the Laotian delegate could not be confronted with some of the evidence of illegal wildlife trade in his country (including the open display of ivory in many stores). The answer was: “Some of these officials attending here are as frustrated as you and I are.” The question I did not ask but should have is: Why do we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on such meetings in five-star hotels if the attendees are not decision makers and have no way to help create the political will to mount some real enforcement campaigns?
With Western diplomats and conservationists based in Vietnam, I discussed possible approaches to reducing demand. Exhortations about conservation do not seem to do the trick. One strategy is to attack the validity and effectiveness of the Traditional Chinese Medicine industry and its products. The feeling was and is, however, that the viewpoint of the West on such issues would not prove persuasive and might be counterproductive.
What about a campaign on local TV stations publicizing the techniques used by dealers to present “rhino horn” as real when in fact most of it is just pieces of
water buffalo horn or some other imitation? The embarrassment at being deceived in the past and the desire to avoid falling for a scam might be a much more powerful and effective deterrent than another study questioning the medicinal properties and value of rhino horn. On the other hand, it might lead to a crackdown by authorities on the trading in fakes. That could be a good clue that they themselves are consumers of rhino horn.
Oh, and what about the two tiger cubs? We never found out what became of them. Most likely they ended up on a tiger farm, where the fact that they were caught in the wild was disguised. There they would be fed until they became the right size, and then butchered for their bones, skins, claws, and other valuable parts. The meat may also be sold, but it is not a sought-after product.