Why poachers target the rhino

Jonathan Watts: A combination of ancient Chinese belief and modern financial speculation threaten the animal

A combination of ancient Chinese belief and modern financial speculation help to explain why rhinoceros populations are coming under renewed pressure from poachers.

In traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horn is prized as a key ingredient in An Gong Niu Huang Wan, considered one of the three main restorative tonics. Shaved or ground into a powder, the horn is dissolved in boiling water and used to treat fevers, rheumatism and gout.

The Chinese government banned the trade in rhino horn in 1993 at the same time as it imposed a similar prohibition on the sale of tiger body parts. Since the ban, the horn of water buffalo has been used as a substitute, but it is not considered as effective.

On the internet, sales continue of rhino-based An Gong Niu Huang Wan with claims that the product is made with horn stockpiled before the ban.

Chinese and Vietnamese buyers prefer horn from Asian rhinos, which is three to six times more expensive than that of African animals. But poaching and habitat loss mean there are few rhinos left in Asia, which is what could have prompted the dealers to look for supplies in Africa.

Last May, an official of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species visited south-east Asia to appeal to enforcement authorities to pay extra vigilance to rhino horn smuggling.

"The Vietnamese are moving rhino horn from Africa. That's something we haven't seen before," noted an Asia-based conservationist, who asked to remain anonymous. "There is stockpiling. Collectors appear to be holding on to the horn like gold and waiting for the value to increase."

Assessment of the extent of the problem is complicated by the tendency of smugglers to mix rhino horn with elephant tusks. A big shipment of ivory seized in Bangkok last month is believed to have included rhino horn.

While the majority of rhino products are made in China and Vietnam, the animal's horn also fetches a good price in Yemen, Oman and other countries in the Middle East, where it is carved to produce dagger handles.


Jonathan Watts

The GuardianTramp

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