Endangered is the New Black

By Jade Harvey

There is a new special ingredient fizzing in the wine glasses of the status-conscious Vietnamese elite. It is said to dull hangovers, increase male sexual performance, and even cure cancer. It is part of a high-demand trend driving not only the libidos of certain wealthy young Vietnamese, but also the extinction of some of the world’s most spectacular animals. It is rhinoceros horn powder—and according to one Vietnamese news site, with wine, it is “the drink of millionaires.”

Rhino horn powder, tiger bone paste, dried pangolin scales—the list of currently sought-after illegal animal products goes on and on. In recent years, unprecedented increases in disposable income have spurred the development of a modern luxury goods market in Vietnam. Along with the new demand for designer labels and foreign cars has come a sudden resurgence of interest in the most status-conscious black market products today, which come not from Parisian runways or German factories, but from the jungles of Southeast Asia and plateaus of South Africa. For a select and powerful group of emerging urban business elite, endangered animal products are the new black.

A 19th Century Illustration of Javan Rhino Hunting (Courtesy of Public Commons).
A 19th Century Illustration of Javan Rhino Hunting (Courtesy of Public Commons).

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading conservation group, Vietnam ranks as the worst country in the world for wildlife crime, due to the government’s poor compliance and enforcement of anti-trafficking standards. When it comes to categorizing wildlife crime, nations are divided into source, transit and consumer countries; Vietnam—with its natural eco-diversity, expansive border, and history of wildlife product use in traditional medicine—is all three. But what suddenly landed Vietnam the number one spot on WWF’s grim list has little to do with a lingering national interest in traditional medicine or geographical predispositions, but rather with an increase in demand for luxury animal products among newly rich consumers, from local celebrities to government officials.

In 2010, poachers killed the last native Vietnamese Javan rhinoceros. In order to continue meeting national demand for rhino horns, Vietnamese traders turned to South Africa, home of the white rhino. TRAFFIC, an international anti-wildlife crime organization with offices in Hanoi, describes this newly formed South African-Vietnam trade nexus as a “deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates.” The number of white rhinos killed worldwide has spiked from 13 in 2007 to 532 in 2012—a 5000% increase. In the first four months of 2014 alone, about two rhinos were killed every day.

Although rhino horn consumers are a minority in Vietnam, the recent demand, driven chiefly by the 65% of the population under the age of 30, is high enough to have made local and international wildlife NGOs uneasy. Exotic animal consumption was once linked to traditional medicine, but in modern Vietnam, “face consumption”—the extravagant usage of rare and expensive products to display social status and wealth—drives this demand. On the streets of Vietnam, rhino horn can fetch up to 65,000 USD per kilogram, a price tag higher than the US street value of cocaine. Surveys from TRAFFIC identify young middle-class mothers purchasing on behalf of their families and middle-aged urban businessmen as the main users of rhino horn products. Consumers no longer necessarily believe that rhino horn or tiger bone products are the best cures for illnesses. Rather, the allure of gifting a friend “$5,000 Aspirin” fuels the market, Dr. Naomi Doak of TRAFFIC Vietnam explained.

When wildlife conservation groups in Vietnam air advertisements featuring orphaned rhinos and baby polar bears, viewer response surveys indicate that audiences respond with apathy rather than guilt. According to Dr. Doak, Vietnamese consumers often note neither the majesty of the animal nor the need to protect it but instead “see a powerful, strong animal that can defeat all others, that has a really big horn on it, and think ‘Oh, that’s probably worth a lot of money.’”

Dr. Doak explained that illegal animal consumption has nothing to do with the rhino or the tiger itself, but rather with their symbolism: “A consumer believes, right or wrong, that by physically eating, consuming, or owning a part of that animal, they take on the qualities of that animal.” Rhino horn marketing glorifies the masculine tenacity of the rhino to convince male consumers of its male-enhancing abilities and highlights the endurance of the animal to convince cancer patients of its ability to cure illnesses.

In truth, effective advertising for anti-poaching groups proves consistently difficult. By posting pictures of animals, Doak explained, NGOs run the risk of “just creating an advertisement for rhino horn product because it’s simply reinforcing the values that the consumer sees when they look at the animal.”

Campaign Against the Use of Rhino Horn (Courtesy of Traffic Vietnam).

Other organizations such as Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), a Vietnamese-run conservation NGO, have pursued a more controversial route by showing graphic ads depicting poaching violence. In 2013, ENV, along with WildAid and the African Wildlife Foundation, released a viewer-discretion advised PSA titled “The Sickening Truth.” The 40-second ad juxtaposed images of a dehorned rhino bleeding profusely in an open plain against shots of rhino horn being ground in a bowl for medicine. Though received poorly by television stations, the ads caused a direct increase in wildlife crime reports to the organization’s wildlife crime report hotline. ENV’s latest campaign takes yet another route by showing a Vietnamese businessman “losing face” at a company meeting after his employers and partners awkwardly refuse his gift of tiger bone paste.

The goal of these ads is to discredit endangered animal product advertisements—a task that has proven to be particularly difficult in recent years as smugglers now use the Internet to push their products. WWF has found Vietnamese online ads persuading consumers that rhino horn “is like a luxury car” and extolling rhino horn’s benefits as an aphrodisiac and hangover cure.

Illegal Internet ads, though, are not the only area where government regulation proves inadequate. Weak enforcement of trafficking prohibitions makes wildlife smuggling profitable and low-risk. The punishment for heroin smuggling in Vietnam is the death sentence, while the maximum time for rhino horn smuggling is only seven years—a conviction that has only been enforced on one occasion to date. NGOs are pushing to expand the maximum sentence of endangered animal product smuggling to 25 years in hopes of upping the risks of network involvement.

Even if the laws change, overcoming the “it’s not my problem” mentality may be the most daunting challenge in the fight to increase conservation. To be sure, the lack of ample security for protected areas, rising demand, and power of Vietnamese criminal syndicates complicate the mission of Vietnamese wildlife advocates. But the emotional disconnect between many adults and the animals they are killing further makes meaningful progress even more difficult. “We can explain why the world needs rhinos,” Dr. Doak lamented, “But we can’t explain why he [the consumer] needs rhinos.” While rhino horn consumers are a minority, the prevailing tradition of disregarding the importance of wildlife protection still threatens the future of endangered species in the country.

ENV established Vietnam’s first wildlife crime email and phone hotline to empower Vietnamese citizens to report the illegal sale or trade of endangered animal products themselves. ENV Chief Technical Advisor Doug Hendrie describes the hotline and report system as a way to encourage the public to take initiative and to push Vietnamese officials to do their jobs, rather than rely entirely on NGO intervention.

As much as international NGOs have contributed to fighting wildlife crime in Vietnam, the real solution must come from the Vietnamese public itself. In March 2014, the Vietnam Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES) Management Authority of the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development hosted a roundtable meeting on transnational wildlife crime. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung also issued a directive to prioritize enforcement by all ministries, and to combat poaching and trafficking across the country. Since then, though, the government has yet to take any concrete action. Without government backing and support from citizens, anti-wildlife crime legislation will never become a national priority on its own. When it comes down to it, Hendrie explained, “wildlife crime is a Vietnamese problem that needs a Vietnamese solution.”

But anti-trafficking activists see small glimmers of hope. Hendrie cites the steady growth of young anti-wildlife crime volunteers, explaining that “in one day, Vietnam looks like hell, but in ten years, it looks pretty good.” In a country where many people still feel unaffected by wildlife crime, the upcoming generation of young, politically active Vietnamese will play a critical role in establishing wildlife protection as a national priority. Although Vietnam has lost the fight to save its last native rhino, the race to protect the country’s thousands of other endangered species from luxury consumption has only just begun.

Jade Harvey ’17 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at jade.harvey@yale.edu.