Vietnam is the world’s largest consumer of illicit rhino horn products and it is in this Southeast Asian country that South Africa must focus its resources to stem the flow of rhino horn trade and counter rhino poaching.

New research by Dr. Dao Truong from the research unit TREES (Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society) at the North-West University’s Potchefstroom Campus in South Africa points to a feasible approach to achieve an effective way to change that population’s attitude to rhino horns.

According to the Save the Rhino foundation, rhino poaching has increased by 5 000% in South Africa since 2008. In 2014 alone a staggering 1 215 rhinos where poached (that is one rhino every eight hours) and, until 30 April, 393 have been poached in 2015. The reason is simple: the retail price of rhino horns has ballooned from US$4 700 per kilogram (R58 421) in 1993 to US$65 00 (R807 950) in 2012.

“My hope is that this research may assist governments, NGO’s and international agencies to establish policies and strategies to mitigate or prevent further loss of the iconic rhino,” explains Truong.

The Vietnamese born, Canterbury University educated academic’s findings are fascinating, but we’ll get there is a second.

Truong chose Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) as his study sites as they are the two biggest rhino horn import destinations in Vietnam. A previous study showed that women in their mid-50s were the main buyers of rhino horn whilst the end-users were primarily well-educated and successful men aged over 40. Truong therefore decided to focus on male respondents with a monthly income of 30 million Vietnamese Dong (VND). This equates to about R14 402 or US$1 400.

After an extensive sifting process, starting with 6 161 households, 608 men were identified as fitting the prerequisite criteria and they were then delivered a survey; 307 in Hanoi and 301 in HCMC.

Now things get interesting. Of the 608 respondents, 47.2% or 287 indicated that they have consumed rhino horn whilst 52.8% or 321 said that they haven’t. The distribution between the cities were almost exactly equal. A total of 88.5% of respondents reported being married and 98.95% were university graduates or higher.

Health related motivations were reported by 87.8% of respondents as a reason for using rhino horn and, curiously, 47.39% used rhino horn to reduce hangovers. Just more than 30% used rhino horn to detoxify their bodies and the use of rhino horn to help cure life-threatening illnesses such as cancer were reported by 7.67% of respondents.

Rhino horn is also often used during business transactions and especially to seal deals.

”Research predicts that if the remaining poaching trend continues as it does, Africa’s remaining rhino population may be extinct within the next 20 years. The growth in global illicit wildlife poaching and trade suggests that the enforcement of current regulatory and educational interventions by the international community, governments and conservation NGOs has not been sufficient,” says Truong.

He continues: “The symbolic function of rhino horn as a medium to communicate status and prestige and obtain social leverage in Vietnamese society makes the reduction of demand extremely challenging. While individuals may be willing to change consumption behaviour in home environments, collective interests and the symbolic place of rhino horn in social networks and events means that refusal to consume or serve rhino horn may be interpreted as putting personal interests ahead of those in the group.”

The solution to finding an alternative to rhino horn is twofold. The one option is to look for an alternative which has the same symbolic value as rhino horn, something of cultural significance but cheaper. Then, if taken into account that the majority of rhino horn users consumed it to curb hangovers, and that rhino horn is nothing more than a placebo, then the answer is clear. A clever marketing campaign focussing on a prestige product that is proven to help cure hangovers can work wonders. This is where the South African government and the Department of Tourism can play a major role in halting rhino poaching.

The research shows that television, radio and the internet are the most popular channels through which rhino horn consumers receive information about rhino horns. It is illegal to use radio or television to advertise rhino horn as a product, but not to discuss its medical validity.

“The success of any campaign is likely to be affected by the extent to which the most high status individuals and officials in the country adopt behaviours that place higher value on refusing rhino than receiving it,” Truong elucidates.

Although rhino horn is promoted as an aid to improve sexual potency, very few consumers reported using rhino horn for this purpose despite them being middle-aged married men.

“We were uneducated, we didn’t know what rhino horn was used for because most of what we thought we knew was based on assumption. The research shows that the use of rhino horn is imbedded in certain parts of Vietnamese culture and that it will not simply disappear. However, thanks to this research we now know what rhino horn is used for, therefore we know what alternatives to look for. I am positive that if we examine Vietnamese history and culture we will find a substitute; one not to the detriment of the rhino,” explains Prof Melville Saayman, director of TREES.

“An urgent behavioural change intervention is needed and many of the methods used so far have proved ineffective. Why not try this?”

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