The Rich Men Who Drink Rhino Horns

Vietnam’s illicit rhino-horn trade is rooted in traditional medicine, but a new class of ambitious young businessmen are using it for something more than health.

A piece of rhino horn on a ceramic grinding plate in Vietnam (Getty)

As I turned down Lãn Ông street, two things struck me. The first was how quiet it is compared to the rest of Hanoi’s Old Quarter: The flow of motorbikes is less incessant, the lights a notch dimmer. The second was the smell: somewhat musty, sometimes sweet, and unmistakably herbal.

I was on Vietnam’s “traditional medicine street.” Shophouses all along the row were stacked with herbs and medicines. Dark-colored ointments filled glass bottles. Red ginseng and artichoke tea was packed in cardboard boxes. Plastic bags were stuffed with monk fruit, lotus seeds, and strips of bark. But I had come in search of something a bit more elusive: rhino horn.

Although banned in Vietnam, rhino horn is still available for purchase—if you know how to find it. The Southeast Asian nation is the largest consumer of rhino horns in the world, and the illicit trade is so strong that it’s fueling a poaching crisis in South Africa, where more than 1,000 rhinos have been killed in the past year alone. In one of the most recent arrests, police seized two frozen tigers cubs, four lion pelts, and nearly 80 pounds of rhino horns in raids conducted across the country’s capital, Hanoi.

The Vietnamese government is now facing fierce international pressure to put an end to the crisis, before rhino populations are devastated beyond repair. But weeding out rhino-horn consumers is a challenge. A piece of horn used to be sought after by older Vietnamese folk, who would visit traditional medicine shops in Lãn Ông street and elsewhere for that special ingredient to add to herbal tonics. But these days, it’s wealthy young businessmen driving the demand—and their interest in horns lies beyond its purported medicinal benefits.

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Since 2007, the nonprofit organization Traffic has been studying rhino-horn-consumption patterns in Vietnam. Traffic’s last big survey, involving 720 people in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, was conducted in 2013, when they identified four main groups driving the demand: those who believe rhino horn can cure cancer, young mothers who use it to treat feverish children, the affluent who view it as a “health and hangover-curing tonic,” and rich businessmen who give it to superiors to get into their good books.

A more recent report, published by the International Trade Center in April, whittles down these observations even further. Following interviews with 249 users, ITC concluded that “the main rhino horn buyers were rich people who bought rhino horn for use in family or to give to other people as gifts.”

Vietnam sees more rich people as each year goes by. Frequently referred to as “Asia’s next tiger” because it has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Vietnam boasts a GDP that has steadily increased by 7 percent every year since 1990. The number of ultra-high net worth individuals—those with more than $30 million of investable assets—has grown 320 percent in the past 16 years, a rate quicker than either China or India.

There are now stories of Vietnam’s nouveau riche reveling in their newfound wealth at “rhino-wine associations,” gatherings where people down drinks of rhino horn powder mixed with alcohol or water. There are also tales of parties where powdered horn is snorted like cocaine. The reality may not be quite so wild: “It’s not a drink to enjoy by itself, but it’s used as a tonic to prevent or cure a hangover,” says Madelon Willemsen, the head of Traffic’s Vietnam office. “They say, ‘Hey, I’ve got some rhino horn, here you go so we can get pissed tonight and you won’t have a hangover tomorrow.’”

Willemsen shared some testimonials her team collected from the rhino-horn users they surveyed. In one, a man recounted receiving a small piece of rhino horn from a friend who was concerned about how frequently he had to drink while entertaining clients for work. The man ground up the horn using a special ceramic bowl, dissolving some of the powder in a glass of water before refrigerating it. He consumed the concoction the morning after a big drinking session. “I felt very cool and much better, and was able to have another party and drink alcohol with guests that very afternoon,” the man recalls.

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Rhino horns were first described in traditional-medicine pharmacopeias more than 1,800 years ago—but their prescribed usage had nothing to do with alleviating a bad hangover. The horns were “commonly used for febrile seizures, very high fevers and for internal heat that affects the blood,” says Steve Given, who teaches traditional Chinese medicine at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

One of traditional medicine’s central tenets is the balance of yin and yang within the body. Rhino horns are believed to have “cooling” properties, which reportedly makes them well-suited for reducing temperatures and removing bodily heat. “But the research is very, very limited as to whether it can actually reduce fevers,” Given says. That’s unsurprising, since most of what makes up rhino horn, despite its majestic appearance, is keratin—the same non-therapeutic protein found in human hair and nails.

Despite being mentioned in ancient medical texts, rhino horns “never played an important part in traditional medicine,” says Michele Thompson, a history professor at Southern Connecticut State University and the author of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine: A Social History. “The use of it is essentially a fad.”

In the early 1990s, rhino horn was just a blip on the radar. Demand was low, thanks to various trade bans implemented within Asia and the removal of rhino horns from an official list of traditional medicines. But appetite swelled suddenly in 2008, with prices skyrocketing as high as  $100,000 per kilogram, following rumors that rhino horn had miraculously vanquished a retired politician’s cancer.

Since then, that speculation has been squashed, and the fanfare over the horn’s supposedly healing powers has died down—a shift that’s reflected in the shops on Lãn Ông street today. Most of the shopkeepers I approached to ask for rhino horn shook their heads vigorously and waved me away. Only one, out of 10 I asked, said she might have something for me—if I could shell out $3,500 for 100 grams worth. I would have to give her a call tomorrow morning and come back at 10 a.m. to collect it. It all sounded very suspicious to me.

“When you go to traditional medicine shops, you need to know someone,” says Trang Nguyen, the founder of the conservation charity WildAct. “But it’s easy to get rhino horn today through Facebook, online forums, or e-commerce websites.” This switch from physical to virtual stores is perhaps emblematic of the changing face of rhino horn consumers—from more conservative older folk who believe in the power of herbal remedies to upwardly mobile, tech-savvy youths who believe in the power of money.

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Traffic understands this trend well. For their latest campaign, launched in 2014, the group chose to target urban businessmen ranging from 35 to 50 years old. At crowded places such as the airport and on city billboards, Traffic displayed glossy black posters of well-dressed men in slick suits, with taglines like “Character comes from within.” The campaign is referred to as the Chi initiative; it refutes the notion that rhino horns confer power or status, invoking instead the Asian concept of chi, the energy force said to be present in every living thing. “It’s all about strength coming from within, and not from a piece of horn,” explains Willemsen, who says the campaign has reached more than five million of its target audience.

Her team plans to launch the next phase of the Chi initiative at the end of the year. They’ll continue to work with the government’s Central Committee for Propaganda and Education, but this time the focus of attention will be turned inwards: to government officials. In a separate project slated for the coming months, the World Bank will also seek to reduce rhino-horn usage among Vietnam’s public servants.

The government itself has taken steps to remediate the illicit trade: In 2012, it signed an agreement with South Africa to better control horn trafficking, and in 2014, it signaled Vietnam’s commitment to tackle wildlife crime by signing, along with 45 other countries, the London Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade. But translation of policy into practice has been slow—no illegal traders have been prosecuted to date, and a new penal code meting out harsher punishment for trafficking has been indefinitely delayed since July last year.

“When rhino horn is used as a status symbol, it’s an ideal commodity to give to a superior or a colleague, or to be used as a bribe to get work done,” says Willemsen. “The government is very clearly implicated in maintaining this whole trade.”