Africa’s wild rhino population faces a severe poaching crisis driven by growing demand for their horns in China and Vietnam. In South Africa, 1,054 rhinos were poached for their horns in 2016, a statistic that declined for the second consecutive year, but when compared to just 13 rhinos killed in 2007 remains unacceptably high. Alarmingly, world famous safari destination Kruger National Park experienced a sharp increase in poaching arrests.
In 2014, WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation, and the local Vietnamese NGO CHANGE launched a campaign to reduce the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam. Rhino horn is primarily consumed in China and Vietnam for its supposed – and unfounded – health benefits such as curing cancer, increasing virility, and even as a hangover cure. Having launched a similar campaign in China in 2013, WildAid is working to raise awareness of the rhino poaching crisis, support Vietnamese lawmakers in banning the rhino horn trade and increasing domestic enforcement efforts, with the goal of ultimately reducing demand for rhino horn in Vietnam.
In 2014 and 2016, the campaign partners and the Nielsen Corporation conducted surveys of residents in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to gain insights into participants' awareness and beliefs about rhino horn and attitudes toward the trade.
The 2014 survey showed that prior to our campaigning, the majority of Vietnamese residents believed that rhino horn had medicinal benefits. The 2016 findings showed a 67% decline in the number of people who personally believe that it has medical effects. Just under 10% of respondents now believe that rhino horn can cure cancer, down from more than a third two years ago. A separate 2016 Humane Society International survey of six Vietnamese cities also showed a 45% decrease in the proportion of people believing that rhino horn has medicinal value, compared to 2013.
Knowledge that rhino horn is composed of substances found in hair and fingernails – the main message of WildAid’s wide-reaching Nail Biters campaign – has increased drastically; only 19% knew in 2014, compared to 68% in 2016 (a 258% increase). In China, similar improvements in public awareness were documented in a 2014 WildAid survey.
More than half of respondents are now aware that rhinos are killed for their horns: 54% in 2016 versus 31% in 2014, a 74% increase. Further highlighting the impact of our campaign, 89% of people who have heard rhino protection messages recognized WildAid’s slogan and 99% agree the messages are useful and discourage people from purchasing rhino horn. A 2016 study published in SWARA magazine found that wholesale rhino horn prices had decreased by half in both China and Vietnam. Horn was widely reported to be selling in the countries for US$65,000/kg in 2012-13, but declined to US$30-35,000/kg in 2015. An Al Jazeera report similarly found that the price in China declined even further during 2016 to under US$30,000/kg, placing it below the price of gold (US$34,000/kg).
In another positive development, Vietnam’s National Assembly is currently revising its penal code to strengthen penalties for wildlife crime offenses. The code is slated for ratification in 2017 and will increase the risk traders take when dealing in illegal wildlife products as well as assist enforcement agencies in the prosecution of suspects.
However, further complicating matters and undermining this progress, the South African government announced plans to permit domestic trade in rhino horns. International trade is not currently permitted under international treaty rules. In the past, legalization of ivory sales stimulated elephant poaching as illegal tusks could easily be laundered. WildAid is concerned, therefore, that this announcement may cause a resurgence of rhino poaching. Our surveys of Vietnamese residents underline the potential for changing attitudes and behaviors by increasing awareness of the poaching crisis and displacing the idea that rhino horn can be used to treat illnesses. If we can extinguish the demand in consuming nations and ensure enforcement is applied consistently, the profit incentives for poachers and traders will disappear. Only after the horn market collapses will Africa’s rhinos be safe from the threat of poaching.