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On the trail of Asia’s shifting rhino-horn market

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As long as consumers want rhino horn, South Africa will lose its rhinos to the slow, agonising blows of the poacher’s hacksaw. In this extensive investigation, undercover Swiss filmmaker Karl Ammann finds that black market sentiments have shifted from health to wealth — and that this might be exacting a demand that is bigger than the 1,000-plus rhino poached in South Africa each year. 

 (All photos by Karl Ammann)

A groundswell of economists and conservationists have written reports dealing with the demand-and-supply characteristics of the trade in rhino horn. Although the picture of supply, and how this chain works, seems clear, the demand side is a lot less certain, as well as how the end-consumer drives it.

My research with South African filmmaker Phil Hattingh for The Hanoi Connection, our feature-length 2018 documentary on the driving forces behind the rhino massacre, kicked off about six years ago by scouting for products in traditional Chinese/ Vietnamese medicine shops in Vietnam. To secure the acceptance we needed, we established ourselves as customers over several trips to Hanoi, the capital, by buying samples of powdered rhino horn or small pieces of horn cut from bigger chunks.

When a chopped piece flew into the street while a dealer was sawing so-called rhino horn with heavy equipment on her shop pavement, it became clear that customers were probably being deceived by all kinds of bogus products purporting to be rhino material. After all, the real-deal product would not be treated so carelessly — nor sold to us at the price we paid for the flying fragment.


A traditional Chinese medicine dealer in Hanoi, Vietnam, hacks off rhino-horn portions on her shop pavement.

Outside Hanoi, we filmed a production facility for fake horns and faux hunting trophies, which included adapted water-buffalo horns. Then we documented thousands of fake horns for sale at a specialised market for wildlife artefacts in Guangzhou, China.

Approaching several wildlife-oriented genetics laboratories in 2014 with samples from these initial trips turned into something of a challenge: most agreed to analyse them for us — but they were concerned about publishing the data without the necessary import and export permits.

The year before, the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) had decided in Bangkok that seized samples of rhino horn or horn products should be handed directly to designated laboratories. It had become clear that there was little, if any, secure storage for rhino horn in supply-and-consumer destinations. This seemed especially true for Vietnamese officials, who seemed to think that they had good reason to keep the exchange of samples for enforcement purposes to a minimum. In one incident, the officials supposedly tried transporting samples to South Africa. These were then “stolen” en route.

The central issue with our approach to laboratories, of course, was that we as filmmakers and investigators were not party to CITES. As such, trying to source export and import documents, and filling them in accurately, would have been a complete waste of time — we could not even positively identify the products until the DNA results were in.

Testing fake tiger bones for our 2016 documentary The Tiger Mafia helped place things in some perspective: a Swiss-based university lab got a legal opinion stating that it was not infringing on any law if it was doing analysis to determine a particular species; or, indeed, if any such samples turned out to be from CITES-listed species.

We were aware that we faced another challenge here: showing our hand too early through releasing our samples to laboratories, or the corresponding results, might have jeopardised future investigations.

For this stage of our demand-side investigations, the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria would prevail as a testing solution. Set up and developed by Dr Cindy Harper and her team as a tool to aid enforcement, the laboratory’s Rhino DNA Indexing System (RhODIS) has a mission enshrined in the South African Biodiversity Act. First used in a rhino-poaching case in 2010, RhODIS analyses samples of as many dead and live rhinos as possible. DNA is continually collected from southern and East African range states, and tested. The system’s database today includes DNA profiles of more than 20,000 rhinos.


The South African Environmental Ministry at CITES CoP16 in Bangkok, Thailand, 2013.

Our samples were delivered to the lab by various parties travelling to South Africa. If any CITES permitting issues were to arise, we could legitimately argue that we were not sure what exactly we had acquired.

I have also travelled, crossing over half-a-dozen borders, with very well-manufactured, fake rhino horns for use in presentations, fully aware that they would show up on X-ray machine displays. In fact, I looked forward to being challenged. I even had the invoice proving the origins of the fake products: from Bone Clones, a US-based company.


A horn that fits nicely in the side-pocket of a travel bag.

Not on a single occasion — at Zurich, Nairobi, New York or Johannesburg — did anybody ask me to take out those horns.

I hope some of this evidence, also earmarked for upcoming publication by DNA experts in a peer-reviewed journal, might help economists and conservationists reassess their position on the overall demand-and-supply characteristics of rhino horn.

However, will the enforcement authorities of demand as well as supply countries, many with serious governance and corruption problems, be interested in using any of the relevant results in the context of planning enforcement measures? Or would they rather not know?

If some countries are exposed for having bigger compliance problems than what might have been imagined, would the CITES Secretariat / Standing Committee finally recommend these parties for the suspension from all commercial and non-commercial trade — a key enforcement tool hardly ever used by the CITES decision-makers?

Since the CITES trade ban of rhino horn in 1976, it is estimated that more than 100,000 rhino have been lost to poaching. The domestic trade ban by China in 1993 has not made a difference either. Maybe it is time for the CITES policymakers to dig deeper into their enforcement toolbox.

The South African Environmental Ministry at CITES CoP16 in Bangkok, Thailand, 2013.

South African Environmental Minister Edna Molewa announced, at Bangkok in 2013, that the country would now look into legalising the trade in rhino horn … based on “having tried everything else”.

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