The Hanoi Connection synopsis
The coverage spans six years of filming a story line that takes the viewer to the nexus of wildlife trafficking - from the semi-autonomous Special Region 4 in Myanmar's notorious Golden Triangle to the Kings Roman casino on the banks of the Mekong to the villages on the outskirts of Hanoi where master carvers fashion rhino horn into status symbols that fetch up to US$ 200 per gram.
Our covert cameras recorded Vixay Keosavang, the Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking, in his home offering to buy illicit products; his Lieutenant Chumlong Lemthongthai's arrest and trial in South Africa; and the massacre of thousands of rhino, slaughtered for their horn.
The biggest revelation of our exposè was being able to confirm that the primary use of rhino horn in South East Asia has morphed from health to wealth. Most rhino horn is used to manufacture status symbols for the nouveau riche - libation cups, wedding rings and even signature stamps - while the shavings and other waste from the processing is sold for use as Traditional Medicine.
While investigating trafficking at the demand side it soon became evident that many items sold as rhino horn were in fact faux products. An initial step was to establish to what extent the market in fakes was part of the overall demand and how the consumers dealt with the issue. We bought traditional medicine items supposedly made from rhino horn and had them analysed at the Veterinary Genetics Lab of Pretoria University in South Africa.
The majority of these samples turned out to be water buffalo, sheep and Saiga deer, while the opposite was true for items bought from artefact and antique shops in the region. The monetary value of artefacts is 30 times higher than the rhino horn waste from artefacts used for medicine.
A sophisticated web based marketing strategy that sells illicit wildlife products emerged after our local operatives trawled internet sites and established that a multi-million dollar industry exists on the dark web. Code words are used to view and order illegal items ranging from tiger whiskers in a glass tube to rhino horn products and even whole tiger skeletons, paid for online and delivered to your doorstep within 24 hours. The low risk high reward business model has become a major threat to anti trafficking law enforcement agencies who cannot keep abreast of organised crime syndicates ever evolving and successful smuggling networks.
The domestic trade in rhino horn was outlawed in in China in 1993. However it seems to have done little in terms of reducing demand and there are indications of the ‘reverse stigma effect’ having come into play where acquiring illegal items adds to the status. Being above the law being part of the image which an owner of rhino horn products can project.