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Where is all the rhino horn going – and where is it coming from?

A GROUNDSWELL of economists has written reports dealing with the demand-and-supply characteristics of the rhino-horn trade. Although the picture of supply, and how this chain works, seems clear, one might consider the level of demand much less certain, as well as how the end consumer drives it.

My original research for a corresponding documentary involved scouting for relevant products in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shops in Hanoi, Vietnam and MongLah in Myanmar. To get the access and acceptance we needed, my team bought samples of powdered rhino horn or small pieces of horn cut from bigger chunks. When a chopped piece flew into the street while the dealer was sawing so-called horn with heavy equipment on her shop pavement, it became clear that customers were being deceived by all kinds of bogus products purporting to be rhino material. Outside Hanoi, we filmed a production facility for fake horns, and then documented thousands for sale in one specialised market in Guangzhou, China.

The samples from our initial trips to the Traditional Chinese Medicine outlets were tested for DNA—and the results revealed that 90% were not from rhino. When it came to whole horns, however, dealers told us that buyers who were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars would bring their own experts to check the authenticity of the merchandise. Trying to cheatsuch buyers would certainly be a risky business. To estimate how much horn is real and how much was fake meant undertaking DNA analysis of the samples collected from TCM outlets and high end jewelry shops in four different countries in South East Asia. We approached several wildlife-oriented genetics laboratories and most agreed to undertake the analysis but they were concerned about publishing the data without the necessary Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) import and export permits. This, despite a decision by the parties to CITES that seized samples of rhino horn or horn products should be handed to designated laboratories. A Swiss-based University lab got a legal opinion stating that they were not infringing any law if they were doing analyses to determine a particular species or if, indeed, any such samples turned out to be from CITES-listed species. The preliminary feedback , however, showed us that we were in the possession of Saiga antelope (critically endangered), kudu, and a whole lot of water-buffalo horn.

The partial solution turned out to be the Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria, South Africa who had set up and were developing the Rhino DNA Indexing System (RhODIS). Launched as a tool to aid enforcement, its aim was to do DNA profiling of as many samples of dead and live rhinos as possible. These samples are continually collected from Southern and East African range states, as dictated by the South African Biodiversity Act, and tested. Today this database includes DNA profiles of some 20,000 rhinos.

The test results from our initial samples showed that roughly 90% did not involve any rhino horn. As we dug deeper into the trade, we established that the driving force behind the demand for rhino horn had moved from ‘health’—that is, Traditional Chinese Medicine—to wealth. Most of the horns arriving in the demand countries were now worked into jewelry and artifacts, with a lot if it ending up on the shelves of upmarket tourist outlets, especially in Laos,

Vietnam and Myanmar—countries neighbouring China. Buyers were predominantly Chinese visitors. Many would acquire a slew of pieces for their friends and relatives back home, offering these products via Chinese messaging app WeChat (theirWhatsApp equivalent), an informal system fast-tracked by free instore Wi-Fi connections.

These decorative pieces can be bought via Chinese social media applications.

Collected over the past three years, our samples have yielded some 30 real rhino DNA profiles mostly white rhino DNA, but also some black. Surprisingly, less than a handful matched profiles on the RhODIS database. This raises some interesting new questions as to the possible origin of some 90% of the samples. Private rhino owners in South Africa told us that they regularly received calls from potential customers asking to buy horn. South Africa has a control system that registers all live rhinos in private hands and potentially highlights any missing at any time. Indications are that unscrupulous owners can find ways of selling horn “out the back door” without fear of repercussions. There have been no cases of private rhino owners being prosecuted for ‘missing’ rhinos, or ‘missing’ horns from live rhinos on their properties. Since there are few local consumers in South Africa, would the present move to legalise the domestic trade simply be a way of formalising the status quo of a thriving home market, but whose products end up being traded globally—as our sampling seems to indicate—and contravening CITES rules? In 2016, a Zambian government store was broken into. Diverse horns were stolen, turning this source into a potential supply line not covered by the database. So far, range-country governments such as the Zambian administration have not asked for their stocks to be included in the database. In huge areas such as Kruger National Park, some rhinos might also be poached but never found. Samples of poached rhino arriving in Pretoria sometimes take up to three years to make this journey. Were we bringing back shavings from facilities producing end-consumer items faster than they had travelled from Kruger to Pretoria?

Labelled “rhino-horn shavings” in a Laos shop catering to Chinese visitors.

In 199?? Esmond Bradley Martin presented a paper in Pachyderm stating that the Chinese authorities held rhino horn stocks of almost ten tons and one pharmaceutical conglomerate some 4 tons. A lot of horn which might no longer be in the respective storage sites.

Labelled “rhino-horn shavings” in a Laos shop catering to Chinese visitors.Labelled “rhino-horn shavings” in a Laos shop catering to Chinese visitors.

Recent reports indicate a dramatic drop in the price per kilo of raw horn across the whole of Southeast Asia. In November 2015, dealers were largely quoting*$20,000–$28,000 per kilo, compared with a price of $60,000 some three years earlier. Some dealers indicated that speculators might have dropped out of the market (or possibly Chinese stock holders have entered the market to dump old stocks). At the retail level, manufactured products are generally still quoted at about $120 per gram for a ring, karma bracelet, medallion, comb, drinking cup and so on. Many of the same shops have also gone into the Traditional Chinese Medicine business. Shavings from the workshop floor are now being sold as a by-product at some $10–$20 per gram. This was the source for most of our later samples. Clearly, status and not health now drives the demand and the market.

On a trip in November 2016, we collected 17 samples in 10 days in two of the key demand countries. Some were again fake—while others had been swept up from the workshop floor and presented in little plastic bags, which included bits and pieces from more than one horn/animal. As such, these samples could have yielded more than one DNA profile (except testing was limited to one profile per sample). They could also be an indicator of how active a workshop is and how many horns the cutters have worked on. During the 17th Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg, September 2016, we discussed with several parties the value of such research, the restrictions and the potential impact on enforcement.

The key South African enforcement authorities decided that a formula had to be found to get rhino-horn samples back to the lab in Pretoria under controlled conditions. We would be given Interpol contacts in Southeast Asia to whom we could hand the samples and who would get them to Pretoria.

On our latest collection trip, I travelled to Southeast Asia with a cameraman from South Africa. We followed the stipulated collection procedure—using special evidence bags and containers—and established the chain of custody by photographing shop exteriors as a departure point. The sales transactions were filmed with a hidden camera.

Using special evidence bags and containers to label sampleproducts, as stipulated by Interpol.

When our departure back to South Africa rolled around, Interpol had still not given us any contacts at the Southeast Asia end to whom we could hand the samples. On that trip, I travelled back via Zurich. At the departure security check, I was pulled aside. Various items of my carry-on luggage—including some of the rhino horn sample kits—were swabbed for the standard drug tests. Of course, there was no problem. Rhino horn is neither cocaine nor heroin. But I have little doubt that similar tests could be developed for ivory, rhino horn or tiger bone.

South African and Chinese authorities could do regular tests on flights departing from supply countries and arriving at demand destinations. At least Kenya deploys sniffer dogs walking on the baggage carousel but I have never seen that happen anywhere in Southeast Asia.

I have also travelled, crossing over half-a-dozen borders, with very well manufactured fake rhino horns as a prop in presentations, fully aware that they would show up on X-ray machine displays.

On not one occasion—including Zurich, Nairobi, New York and Johannesburg—did anybody ask me to take out those horns.

Our new evidence, hopefully to be published by the DNA experts in a peer-reviewed journal, might help economists and conservationists to reassess their position on the overall demand-and-supply characteristics of rhino horn and their impact on product prices.

However, will the enforcement authorities of demand-and-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 imagined, would the CITES Secretariat finally recommend these parties for the suspension of all commercial and non-commercial trade—a key enforcement tool rarely, if ever, used by CITES?

The South African Environmental Ministry announced, at CITES CoP16 in Bangkok, 2013, that the country would look into applying for a legal trade in rhino horn based on “having tried everything else”.

This seemed to indicate that other possible enforcement options were no longer considered part of the package.

Fake ‘Rhino’ Horn Floods Asian Markets (TEXT) by Karl Ammann. All rights reserved. Contact:

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