NO MATTER HOW GREAT a tracker Deon van Deventer may be, he could never find a wild rhino in Vietnam. Javan rhinos once proliferated in the Vietnamese forests and floodplains, but in 2010 poachers killed the nation's last wild rhino.
Yet Vietnam has no shortage of rhino horn. The illegal horn trade once revolved around markets in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Yemen, but now it centers on Vietnam, with more than a ton of horn likely to have entered the country last year alone. In South Africa several Vietnamese nationals, including diplomats, have been implicated in plots to smuggle horns out of the country.
Not all rhino horns enter Vietnam illegally. South African law, which complies with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), allows a rhino's horns to be exported as trophies. In 2003 a Vietnamese hunter flew to South Africa and killed a rhino on a legal safari. Soon after, dozens of Asian hunters arrived, each paying $50,000 or more for a hunt through a certified safari outfit. Many of these hunters are believed to work for syndicates. Back in Vietnam, an average pair of horns, weighing 13 pounds, could be cut into pieces and sold on the black market, yielding a profit that could easily top $200,000 after costs.
The triggers for this gold rush are difficult to pinpoint. Rumors about famous users, rising black market prices, and dwindling numbers of Asian rhinos are all feeding the mania. But behind the hype is a renewed interest in the horn's alleged healing power. For at least 2,000 years, Asian medicine has prescribed rhino horn—ground into powder—to reduce fever and treat a range of maladies. The handful of studies conducted over the past 30 years on its fever reducing properties have proven inconclusive, yet the 2006 edition of a Vietnamese traditional pharmacopoeia devotes two pages to rhino horn.
The newest and most sensational claim is that it cures cancer. Oncologists say that no research has been published on the horn's efficacy as a cancer treatment. But even if rhino horn possesses dubious medicinal properties, that doesn't mean it has no effect on people who take it, says Mary Hardy, medical director of Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology and a traditional medicine expert. "Belief in a treatment, especially one that is wildly expensive and hard to get, can have a powerful effect on how a patient feels," she says.
To gain insights into the popularity of rhino horn in Vietnam, I traveled the country with a woman I will call Ms. Thien. A mammogram had revealed a spot on her right breast; a sonogram showed a worrisome shadow on an ovary. The attractive and irrepressible 52-year-old planned to seek modern treatment but also wanted to consult traditional doctors. I asked her if she believed rhino horn might help cure her. "I don't know," she said. "But when you think you might die, it can't hurt to try it."
Our travels took us from cancer hospitals and traditional clinics in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to herbal shops, boutiques selling exotic animal skins, and private homes in small towns. We found rhino horn every place we looked.
Most of the users we met belonged to Vietnam's fast-growing middle class and included Western-trained doctors, a bank executive, a mathematician, a real estate salesman, an engineer, and a high school teacher, among others. Often families would pool money to buy a piece of horn and share it. Some donated it to gravely ill friends who couldn't afford it. Mothers gave it to children with measles. Old people swore it cured poor circulation and prevented strokes. Many considered it a sort of super-vitamin.
Although a number of Vietnamese doctors I spoke with said rhino horn was not an effective cure for anything, let alone cancer, several other respected physicians claimed rhino horn could be part of an effective cancer treatment. Some said they prescribed it in pill form as a palliative for patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Others, including Tran Quoc Binh, director of the National Hospital of Traditional Medicine, which is part of Vietnam's Ministry of Health, believe that rhino horn can retard the growth of certain kinds of tumors. "First we start with modern medicine: chemotherapy, radiation, surgery," Tran said. "But after that, maybe some cancer cells still exist. So then we use traditional medicine to fight these cells." He said that a mixture of rhino horn, ginseng, and other herbs could actually block the growth of cancer cells, but he could not produce any peer-reviewed studies to support his claims.
One evening in Hanoi, Ms. Thien and I visited a busy lakeside café recommended to her by a friend who knew of her health concerns. She explained her situation to the owner, and he produced a chunk of amber-colored horn about the size of a bar of soap and a ceramic dish with a drawing of a rhino on the side. The dish's bottom was rough, like fine-grit sandpaper. He poured several ounces of water into the dish and began to rub the horn in a circular motion on the bottom. After a few minutes, the horn gave off an acrid odor, and the water turned a milky white. The other patrons paid no notice. As he rubbed, the café owner explained that he and a friend had bought the horn as a health supplement and hangover preventive, paying $18,000 for about 180 grams. Their interest had been prompted in part by one of Ho Chi Minh's former secretaries, a regular at the café, who told them that Ho, a firm believer in traditional medicine, had taken rhino horn every day.
After 20 minutes of rubbing, the man poured the liquid into two shot glasses and handed one to Ms. Thien and the other to me. It had a faintly gritty texture but otherwise was tasteless. Ms. Thien drained her glass and set it on the table. "I hope it works," she said.
JOHN HUME BELIEVES no rhinos need to die to supply all the rhino horn the Vietnamese desire. The 69-year-old entrepreneur, who made a fortune in hotels and taxis before turning to game farming, has amassed one of the largest privately owned rhino herds in the world. Currently he has more than 700 white and black rhinos on two farms in South Africa and wants more.
"We take wool from sheep, why not horn from rhinos?" he asks one afternoon, sitting in the office of one of his farms as an albino parrot named Sebastian nuzzles his ear. "If you cut the horn about three inches above its base, it will grow back in two years. That means there is a never ending supply of rhino horn if we're smart enough to keep the bloody animals alive."
Nearly once a week Hume's game manager and a veterinarian, observed by a wildlife official, anesthetize one of his rhinos and remove its two horns with a power saw. Twenty minutes later the animal is back grazing, and the horns, implanted with microchips, are on their way to a bank safe. Hume refuses to say how much horn he has accumulated since he began harvesting in 2002, but a conservative estimate would put its value at tens of millions of dollars.
Hume's idea to farm rhino horn on a large scale would appear to be another in a string of innovative wildlife management practices to come from South Africa. In 1961 officials in Natal Province pioneered the transfer of wild rhinos to private land to increase breeding and genetic diversity. In 1986 the Natal Parks Board allowed excess rhinos from the province's reserves to be auctioned off at fair market value, which brought millions of dollars to local conservation efforts and raised the animals' value among game farmers and hunters. Hume suggests harvesting rhino horn is the next sensible step in preserving and valuing the animals.
As our conversation continues, Hume becomes increasingly agitated. A Vietnamese hunter would happily dart the animal, take the horns, and let it live, he thunders. "But South African law requires the hunter to kill the rhino to export the horn as a trophy." He shakes his head at the illogic.
Among the misconceptions, Hume says, is that ivory and horn are the same. Ivory is an elephant's tooth, while rhino horn is keratin, similar to a horse's hoof. When an elephant's tusk is severed, the nerve inside can become infected, killing the animal. Also, darting an elephant is much more dangerous than darting a rhino, because of its greater size and the protectiveness of its herd.
Conservationists argue that legalizing rhino horn won't change the essential economics of poaching: Poached horn is always going to be cheaper than farmed horn. Hume disagrees: As buyers become confident in the availability of legal horn, prices will fall, which will prompt crime syndicates to leave the business. "The fundamental difference is that poachers go after rhino horn for easy short-term profit. Farmers are in it for years of steady returns."
Some of the resistance, he fears, is a cultural disconnect. "We basically are telling the Vietnamese that it is fine to kill an animal because our tradition of cutting a rhino's head off and putting it on a wall as a decoration is acceptable, but your tradition of cutting off its horn to use for medicine is abominable."
AFTER PATROLLING ALL NIGHT with no sign of the poachers, Damien organized a search for the rhinos. A cold rain fell, and mist filled the forests and valleys as the rangers walked in lines looking for blood or a carcass in the undergrowth. As of midday, Basta and her calf were still missing.
As Damien drove to check the rhinos' preferred feeding areas, he described how his days in Iraq protecting UN convoys gave him special insight into what animals face from poachers. "We got hit by IEDs a few times, and I lost some mates," he said quietly. "I know what it's like to be hunted by humans."
Once he left the military, he was looking for a new life and realized his experience training Iraqi police recruits to take control of their chaotic country matched perfectly with Zimbabwe's chaotic wilderness areas, where game rangers are often ill equipped, poorly paid, and bribed by poachers. He used money saved from his tours in Iraq to found the International Anti Poaching Foundation, which trains, equips, and places game rangers in public and private reserves in Zimbabwe for free. He recruits candidates from the poorest communities because that is where many poachers are from—and where the idea that wildlife is more valuable alive than dead needs to take root. Won't such ideals pale against the allure of big money from poaching? "People said Iraq would never get better, and that's happening," he said. "I am taking the long view here too."
FOUR MONTHS after I interviewed Deon, he was released from prison. He told police he wouldn't testify against his accomplices. Charges were later dropped against Gert Saaiman. Meanwhile, poachers have killed four white rhinos at John Hume's farms. Ms. Thien's doctors determined the spots on her breast and ovary are cysts. She is treating them with a mix of Western and Asian medicine, including rhino horn.
Before I left Zimbabwe, I went back to see Damien. He and Benzene led me to a spot deep in the bush where Basta quietly nibbled leaves from a mopani tree. She stood over her new calf, its wrinkly skin bunched around its neck and knees, resembling oversize gray pajamas. It had a slight bump where a first horn would eventually emerge, just as it had on the snouts of its ancestors for 40 million years. Listening to songbirds trilling in the afternoon sun, we marveled at the little rhino's wobbly attempts to follow its lumbering mother in the high yellow grass.
Damien shook his head. "It's amazing to see that little guy and think someone wants to kill him for that tiny nub, no matter how much magic it supposedly contains." I told him that if his new life's work was to protect rhinos, his "Seek & Destroy" tattoo should read, "Seek & Save." He laughed. "Yeah, mate, I might have to get that changed."