Vietnam's Hot Street Drug: Rhino Horn

The country's rich are ravenous for rhinoceros horn—which they think cures cancer and hangovers.

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Rhino calf with horn removed to prevent poaching.
This rhino calf has had its horn removed to prevent poaching. (Photo: Getty Images)

Vietnam’s growing addiction to rhino horn may hasten the extinction of the critically endangered animal, reports the Associated Press.

Long considered a traditional Chinese medicine, along with bear bile and tiger bones, Vietnam’s nouveau riche are now driving up the demand for powdered rhino horn with disastrous consequences. The process by which the poachers extract the rhinos is horrifying—the horns are cut off with chainsaws, leaving the big beasts to die in agony.

Rhinos were rescued from the brink of extinction in the 1970s, but illegal poaching in Africa, often with the aid of high-tech weapons and helicopters, hit the highest recorded level in 2011. Roughly 28,000 rhinos remain in the wild, mostly in South Africa. Despite efforts to protect the Javan rhino in Vietnam, the last one was brutally slaughtered in a national park in 2010.

“It’s a very dire situation,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “We have very little cushion for these populations in the wild.”

There is no proof rhino horn has any medicinal or “magical” qualities, although it is used as everything from a cure for hangovers to a guard against cancer. Prices for powdered rhino horn can fetch up to $55,000 dollars in Asia. This tops the price for cocaine and puts rhino horn’s value on par with gold.

Reckless lust for exotic animal parts from shark fins to ivory to rhino horns is human arrogance and speciesism run amok. That we feed our bottomless insecurity and need to be percieved as “rich” by eating tasteless shark fin soup or cure our hangovers with rhino horn, and drive other creatures to extinction in the process, would be incredibly pathetic were it not so infuriating. 

Tran Dang Trung, who manages a zoo outside Hanoi that imported four white rhinos from South Africa, said he worries for the animals' safety even though the zoo has 24-hour security.Even rhinos in zoos or taxidermy specimens in museums are not safe from greedy thieves.

“If thieves wanted to kill the animals and steal their valuable parts, they could,” said Trung.

Government officials can’t be counted on to regulate the rhino horn trade as they themselves are caught up in the addiction to so-called “luxury.”

Between 2006 and 2008, three diplomats at the Vietnamese Embassy in Pretoria were linked to embarrassing rhino trafficking scandals—including one caught on tape.

In February, U.S. agents busted an alleged interstate rhino horn trafficking syndicate with Vietnamese-American ringleaders.

You can take action to help stop rhino poaching here