One of the biggest markets for illegally poached rhino horns is Vietnam. Now, a new study profiles the consumers driving that demand and how they view the horns as symbols of status and power.
It’s easy to grasp just how big the demand is. In the first half of this year, hundreds of rhinos have been killed in South Africa alone.
“South Africa is home to about 75 percent of the world’s rhinos. And since 2008, has been experiencing quite a dramatic increase in the poaching of rhinos for their horns -- up from less than 20 a year to 668 in 2012 and already 635 in 2013,” said Dr. Jo Shaw, rhino coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund South Africa.
She said that demand for rhino horns existed long before the huge spike in trafficking to Vietnam and China.
“Earlier demand for horn for dagger handles in the Yemen had a very serious, negative impact on rhino populations throughout eastern and central Africa through the 60s and 70s. But since about 1994, rhino numbers have been increasing. The populations have been growing again. So I think everyone was hit a little bit by surprise by this new wave in the poaching epidemic.”
That new wave in the poaching epidemic led the WWF to fund a consumer research study, which was then coordinated by a Vietnamese branch of the conservation group TRAFFIC. It surveyed 720 people in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
“With the goal of developing a very targeted demand reduction campaign in that country, we wanted to better understand exactly who it was that was using the horn and why, so that we could begin to try and bring about behavior change,” said Shaw.
The study also shows that buyers of rhino horns are often women in their 50s, who are giving them to family members.
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Shaw said, “The finding from the research about this most significant user group to be addressing shows that it’s the wealthy, older businessmen, who are very successful. They still have some belief in the medicinal and functional properties of the horn. It’s seen as a kind of panacea, a cure all. [It’s] often given as a gift to other family members or particularly to business associates or people within your peer group to show one’s wealth and status.”
Only 35-percent of the people surveyed said they would never buy or consume rhino horn.
“Underneath these current users – the current target group – are another group of slightly younger, very aspirational, upwardly mobile people within the same community, who aren’t able to afford to buy rhino horn at the moment, but are very much intending to do so in the future as soon as their economic situation allows it,” she said.
The conservation groups will now use the data to develop an awareness campaign that’s not only effective, but culturally sensitive to Vietnamese. The research indicates that while rhino horn consumers are aware that many animals are being killed, they still feel’ “very disconnected” from the issue. They do not see themselves as “catalysts for the current poaching crisis.”
“We need to think carefully about how we run campaigns around behavior change. And understand that being culturally sensitive and speaking in the most influential way to the most influential people is really what will give us the biggest impact,” said Shaw.
The World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC will work closely with Vietnamese agencies in designing the rhino horn awareness campaign.
While efforts increase to reduce demand for rhino horns in Asia, much still needs to be done in Africa. The U.S. and others have launched new programs to improve anti-poaching efforts. Currently, poachers are often better armed and better equipped than game park rangers. Also, local communities will be encouraged to report any poaching they see.
Rhinos are included in CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.