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Its own rhinos hunted to extinction, Vietnam is a hub for the rhino horn trade

  • The last Vietnamese rhino, a subspecies of the Javan rhinoceros, was shot by a poacher in 2009.
  • Vietnam is both a destination for rhino horn and other wildlife products, and a hub for the trafficking of endangered species from Africa and Asia into China.
  • Vietnam is facing global scrutiny for its failure to crack down on the trade.

In 2009, Vietnam’s last wild rhinoceros was shot and killed by poachers. Before a bullet put an abrupt end to their family tree, Vietnamese rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus), were the last subspecies of Javan rhinos known to survive in mainland Asia.

Javan rhinos were once the most widespread of the Asian species, with a range extending throughout Java, Sumatra, mainland Southeast Asia and into India and China. Hit hard by hunting and habitat loss, Javan rhinos had managed to hang on in just two locations by the beginning of the 21st century: Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park and Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia.

Somehow, Cat Tien’s tiny rhino population managed to survive the defoliation of the park during the Vietnamese-American War and the logging that followed it. In fact, they were thought to have gone extinct until 1989, when reports of a rhino being poached in the area prompted a survey confirming the survival of a small population in the park. In 1993, that population was estimated at eight to twelve individuals; over the next two decades estimates dwindled from eight to five, then two, one and finally zero.

Nineteenth century illustration of a Javanese rhino. The species is so elusive few photographs exist. Image courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Nineteenth century illustration of a Javanese rhino. The species is so elusive few photographs exist. Image courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Unfortunately, the death of the last Vietnamese rhino did not put an end to the market for rhino horn in Vietnam, or — perhaps more critically — slow down the Vietnamese traffickers supplying horn and other wildlife products to consumers in China. Far from it. By 2009, these networks already had years of experience smuggling rhino horn from all over the world into East Asia.

“Vietnam basically wiped out their forests, hunted out their forests, hunted out their national parks, then moved into Lao and Cambodia,” Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for Hanoi-based NGO Education for Nature-Vietnam, told Mongabay. Most of this wildlife, Hendrie added, was “put onto trucks, moved to the border and sold across the border into China.”

The local market

Domestic demand for rhino horn didn’t take off until the late 1990s, Hendrie said. He sees the Vietnamese market for rhino horn as a symptom of the same pockets of rising prosperity that brought Humvees and Lamborghinis to the streets of Hanoi. Although Rhino horn is just matted keratin — the same material as human hair and fingernails – some traditional medicine practitioners claim it can help treat conditions ranging from hangovers to cancer.  Mostly, though, it’s about displaying wealth, Hendrie said.

“Why not use something far cheaper like ibuprofen rather than using rhino horn? And the answer is that it’s a medicinal value linked to status,” he said. “If you would wake up with a hangover it’s unlikely you’re going to go into your medicine cabinet, take out your rhino horn and use it. It’s more likely that you’re going to invite your friends over, and take your rhino horn out of the medicine cabinet and use it, because there is that status aspect of its use.”

In addition to the local market, Vietnam also plays a key role as a transshipment point for wildlife products being trafficked to China from elsewhere. According to Hendrie, it is this trade, much more than the local market, that explains the huge shipments of rhino horn, ivory or pangolin scales that are occasionally seized by at airports, ports and borders.

“Nobody really knows what percentage of it targets Vietnamese consumers and what percentage of it is then transited,” he said. International smuggling networks take advantage of the porous border between the two countries, where monitoring is much less strict than it is for goods arriving directly to China’s major ports. “Literally, the consigning company puts the stuff on a truck in the Vietnamese port in Haiphong or elsewhere, and off it goes up Highway 18 right to the border of China,” Hendrie said. “So, it clearly is a weak link or a back door, you could say, to China.”

Breaking the chain

None of this, of course, lets Vietnam off the hook for its role in wildlife trafficking, or its officials for turning a blind eye to the trade.


The Netherlands-based NGO Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) recently completed an investigation in Nhi Khe, a craft village on the outskirts of Hanoi that has become a hub for the cross-border trade in rhino horn, ivory and other wildlife products. “It was just astonishing,” WJC executive director Olivia Swaak-Goldman told Mongabay. “It’s just so substantial that it has a major impact on the world trade.”

Investigators spent about a year doing research at their desks and on social media, reaching out to traders and eventually meeting wholesalers in back rooms. “We were able to document up to 579 rhinos, equivalent to around half of the rhinos poached in south Africa,” Swaak-Goldman said. This estimate was reached by counting the number of horns displayed by traders, she explained: “We saw traders showing 19 rhinos at a time.” Working undercover, investigators were not able to test the products for origin or authenticity, but she says they believe most of what they saw for sale was authentic — and it was certainly marketed as such.

The WJC also found that most of the rhino horn was not marketed for medicinal use. Instead, it was sold in the form of status markers like libation bowls or bangles and targeted at Chinese buyers. “Only the offcuts were ground into powder,” Swaak-Goldman said. This, she said, suggests that efforts to reduce demand need to go far beyond just addressing the medical efficacy of rhino horn.

An undercover photograph of raw and carved rhino horn for sale in Vietnam. Image courtesy of Wildlife Justice Commission.
An undercover photograph of raw and carved rhino horn for sale in Vietnam. Image courtesy of Wildlife Justice Commission.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the investigation, Swaak-Goldman said, was how easy it was to carry out. “It wasn’t that difficult, to be perfectly honest,” she said. “If we could do it, law enforcement could do it.”

Vietnam has come under serious scrutiny in recent years for failure to clamp down on wildlife crime. The WJC has turned over the results of its investigation to authorities, and will also present them at a public hearing next week in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, conservation groups including WWF have called for the country to face sanctions under CITES, and eyes are on the country as Hanoi prepares to host an international conference on the illegal wildlife trade on Nov. 17.

Hendrie says he prefers to take a long view of the situation in Vietnam. “If you look on any given day on what’s going on in Vietnam, in terms of wildlife protection and how good enforcement agencies are and who’s engaged and so on, you might say it looks like hell,” he said. “However if you look over a period of ten years, I continue to be amazed with the amount of progress the Vietnamese government has made in addressing the wildlife trade. While I would not give them A’s across the board, I would say that the progress has been substantial.”

This progress may have come too late to save Vietnam’s own rhinos, but conservationists hope real change won’t come too late for rhinos elsewhere.

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