This is the belief of the ‘dogmatic Marxist’ quoted from Hayton’s book Vietnam: Rising Dragon. Scott Roberton says that Vietnam’s economic model is, at its heart, driven by a desire ‘to make money, no matter what the cost’.
Clearly the above quotes show that we are dealing with a culture that has no remorse over culling/poaching rhinos as they see rhinos as a resource that is there to be used.
What is the deal with rhino horn? Most of us believe that the east wants rhino horn as it is an aphrodisiac. This myth has largely been dispelled, largely but not completely.
Rhino horn has more than 70 uses according to a Vietnamese website and includes cures for heat-stroke, high fevers, delirium, convulsions, ‘hysteria’, encephalitis, infections and poisoning. Surprisingly – given that the use of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac has long been discounted as a sensationalist invention of the Western media – the advert noted that it could also be used to treat impotence.
Scattered across Vietnam are roughly 50 institutes and hospitals where traditional medicine is practiced. Most State Hospitals have departments of traditional medicine, and about 9 000 health centers are licensed to practice it.
A comprehensive pharmacopeia – published in Vietnam as recently as 2006 – suggests that rhino horn is ‘effective in treating ailments like high fever, delirium, convulsions and headaches’. Four grams can supposedly treat a drug overdose. ‘Rhino horns taste a bit salty, bitter and sour’. When ingested it targets the heart, liver and lungs, helps reduce temperature, calms the mind and reduces pain. It should not be used by pregnant women or in cases where fever is relatively low. It is also ‘recently considered a strong aphrodisiac’, the entry states.
This latter claim is supported by a 2012 TRAFFIC report that describes evidence of a ‘rhino wine’ being marketed as a performance enhancer to ‘improve the sexual prowess of men’. Known locally as tuu giac, it is used exclusively by wealthy consumers, and can apparently be made from any rhino derivative, including blood, dried dung, a penis or fragments of horn mixed with a strong rice wine.
Whether rhino horn has medicinal properties or not is largely irrelevant. In Southeast Asia many people still believe that it does, and that belief will not be easily swayed, even with overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. It has been used for at least 2 000 years.
Vietnams dominance of the trade has been fuelled by its rapid economic growth, increases in disposable income, deficient law enforcement and, perhaps most significantly, a resurgent belief in the horns curative properties, fuelled in part by a cancer myth.
The origins of this myth can be traced to about 2006. On the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, a story slowly began circulating and with every telling, the tale evolved. Soon it went viral. The story went something like this: A senior Vietnamese Communist Party Official – possibly a government minister or even a retired prime minister, depending on who you cared to listen to – had been diagnosed with cancer. Some said it was cancer of the liver, others of the stomach and lungs. The official was a deaths’ door. Doctors said there was no hope. Then a traditional healer was consulted. Regular doses of rhino horn, drunk with water or alcohol, were prescribed. Within a matter of weeks or months, the patient had made a miraculous recovery.
Like many urban legends, the story had the power to convince. In a short time, possibly egged on by the syndicates that were trying to flog their product, it gained relatively widespread acceptance. The Wildlife NGO, Education for Nature – Vietnam (ENV), which set out to investigate its veracity, later concluded that the story was ‘most likely the result of artful journalism’.
Nevertheless, it would have far-reaching consequences. Within two years, rhino poaching figures sky-rocketed. In 2007 13 rhino were poached in South Africa. 2008 – 83; 2009 – 122, 2010 – 333, 2011 – 448.
Vietnam has a population of about 89 million people – the 13th most populated country in the world. Every year, according to the World Health Organization, up to 200 000 people are diagnosed with cancer with between 75 000 – 100 000 deaths. But only about five major government hospitals are properly equipped to treat cancer sufferers. And, between them, they only have enough beds to accommodate 20% of the crushing demand.
For patients to get proper treatment, a ‘tip’ is often required. Usually in the form of cash, sometimes the offer of an ‘opportunity’ to a medical doctor or nurse. The latter can involve anything from discounts in a shop owned by the patient’s family to enrolling a doctor’s child in an expensive school or arranging the purchase of an apartment for them at greatly reduced ‘corporate prices’. The practice is commonly referred to as ten an phong bi or ‘envelope evil’.
The hospitals that are equipped to treat cancer patients are referred to as ‘K Hospitals’. At these K Hospitals there are thriving departments of traditional medicines, where the medical staff regularly encourages patients to use rhino horn in conjunction with standard cancer treatments.
In Vietnam, rhino horn has been elevated to a status symbol. It is hugely expensive and, theoretically, illegal. Those with money want it, not only for its perceived health benefits, but also because it has such an illicit appeal. Displaying a horn on a shelf or table is both an overt statement of wealth and one of untouchability.
As can be seen rhino horn has many uses and has been used for thousands of years so the demand for it is not readily going to wane, irrespective of what the Western World disproves scientifically.
Extracted from: Killing for Profit. Julian Rademeyer. Published by Zebra Press an imprint of Random House Struik (Pty) Ltd. 2012, 2013.
Nigel Anderson: Guide at African Insight