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Why rhino horn? Behind the Demand of the Illegal Trade

The international trade of rhino horn has been illegal since 1977. However, it has been more in demand in the past decade than ever before, fetching prices higher than gold on the black market. The highest demand is in Vietnam and second is in China, where it is seen as a luxury good and is used in Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM).

Between 2006-2016, 18% of all rhino horn (528kg) seizures took place in China and 15% (442kg) in Vietnam. More recently, in the first 9 months of 2021 there were already 402kg of rhino horn confiscations in Vietnam alone. That’s almost as much that was found in those ten years, that was captured in nine recent months! Confiscations are growing to be less often, but higher in weights per confiscation. This shows signs that the illegal rhino trade is becoming more organized and sophisticated. The largest confiscation by weight last year was in Vietnam, where customs at Da Nang port found 138kg of rhino horn in one carrier.

So why is there so much African rhino horn being trafficked to Asia, and what is causing this growing demand?

Rhino horn as a Status Symbol

The demand for rhino horn is parallel to the sustained economic growth in parts of Asia. Since 2008, specifically in Vietnam, there has been a rise to the increasingly wealthy, urban middle class with more disposable income than ever. As rhinos are becoming more endangered, the demand for rhino horn soarse as it is coveted for its rarity. In Asia, it is seen as a luxury item and investment, often used to strengthen business deals and to symbolize wealth. In Vietnam, 65% of the population is under the age of 30 and the economy for luxury goods is booming, posing a bigger threat to the rhinos.

In addition to being carved into jewelry and highly prized chalices and cups, the horn is also turned into powder for consumption. Among elite social gatherings, the horn is commonly ground and mixed with water or alcohol, believed to act as a hangover-cure. It is also drunk for the purpose of being an aphrodisiac, a misperception created by Western media.

Rhino horn for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Rhino horn is also consumed in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), an ancient method believed to treat mild illnesses and improve overall health. It is cited to dispel heat, detoxify the blood, and treat ‘wenbing’, an externally contracted warm-heat infectious disease common in southern China. Recent urban myths have caused a rise in beliefs that the horn can cure cancer, relieve hangovers, and enhance male virility. Rhino horn used for treating these, and any other disease, has not been clinically proven.

Published in 2021, a research study funded by the Australian Research Council studied the consumption of Rhino horn in China. A large-scale online survey was sent to TCM consumers in China's Guangdong province. Not only is Guangdong the largest province by population in China, but it is one of the wealthiest areas of the country. It is located in Southern China, where acute infections and epidemics associated with ‘wenbing’ are most common. Through this research, it was found that one in seven respondents reported having used rhino horn in the past year. They also concluded that users tend to be older, male, wealthier and better educated. Around half of respondents (52.3%) were aware of the use of rhino horn as an ingredient in TCM, proving there is a large opportunity to raise awareness and decrease the demand.


There have been many discussions and actions taken to attempt to decrease the demand for rhino horn in Asia. Overall, the two main courses of action involve educating the public and government action.

Raising Awareness:

Fortunately, in both Vietnam and China, there are efforts to reduce the demand for rhino horn.

Government action to raise awareness is vital to the decrease in consumer demand. This was proven by a survey conducted on rhino horn from November 2012-November 2014. Based on respondents in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the findings demonstrated how an online campaign improved awareness of how the market for such products brings destruction to the rhino populations. It also improved awareness of the criminal networks’ involvement in Africa and Asia. Key findings relating to the rhino horn include :

  • Respondents who believe that rhino horn has medicinal effects dropped by 23.5 percent, from 58.2 percent in 2012 to 44.5 percent in 2014.

  • 50 percent of respondents believe that horns come from poached rhinos, a 51.5 percent increase in awareness since 2012.

  • 95 percent of residents surveyed who don’t consume rhino horn agree that the Chinese government should take stricter action to prevent rhino horn consumption, while even 87 percent of rhino horn consumers agree with stricter regulations.

  • 90 percent of residents who had viewed the campaign’s public service messages starring Yao Ming or Jackie Chan said they would not buy rhino horn.

Both Vietnam and China have proven that they are open and willing to participate in campaigns aimed at decreasing the demand. For example just last year, the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce Industry (VCCI) worked alongside TRAFFIC to deliver an online workshop to pharmaceutical and food industry professionals to stress the crisis facing rhinos and other species that are used in Traditional Chinese Medicines. It is important that these governments continue to push for a decreased demand.

Non Profit Organizations and Conservationists are stepping in to take action and spread awareness of the misperception of rhino horn’s medicinal use as well. In 2019, Save the Rhino International worked with Education for Nature Vietnam to run a month-long educational campaign, named ‘Save the Rhino, Vietnam’. Through video content spread across social platforms, the campaign called for public action to stop the use of rhino horn and raised public awareness of the plight of rhinos, receiving over 1,678,000 views on Youtube.

Government Action:

It is also the responsibility of governments to not only participate in raising awareness, but uphold bans on trade and enforce trade laws.

In 1993 the Chinese government placed a ban on domestic trade and since then, things were looking up. That is, until 2018 Chinese officials planned to lift the ban and implement a controlled trade and allow the use of rhino horn for medicinal purposes. Removing the ban would make it legal to use powdered rhino horn sourced from captive bred animals in medicines, used for educational materials, and to preserve antique cultural artifacts. However, after much widespread criticism, and just two weeks after the plan to lift the ban was announced, the Chinese government announced a postponement. Today, the ban of domestic trade in China is still in effect.

Similar to China, any and all trade of rhino horn is illegal under Vietnamese law. Unfortunately, there have been accusations of direct involvement of senior government figures in the rhino horn trade. According to many documents I have read, including one published by TRAFFIC, officials in Vietnam are allowing free passage and protection to smugglers as they cross borders and enter international airports. Officials are also providing immunity from law enforcement thanks to “local connections”. Vietnam is within the top one-third ranked countries of concern in terms of corruption by the The corruption monitor Transparency International ranks Viet Nam .

Thankfully, both China and Vietnam are involved in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement bound to ensure that any trade of wildlife does not threaten the survival of the species. This will help hold accountability across the globe. The US and other countries also use diplomatic relations to encourage these main markets for illegal ivory and rhino trade to take immediate measures to end the flourishing trade.

With the trade having evolved into highly sophisticated, organized, and adaptive operations involving multiple levels of criminal involvement and corrupt government officials, this is not an issue to be taken lightly. It is important to be optimistic but continued involvement is necessary as the rhinos are running out of time.

Confiscated rhino horns in Viet Nam, TOM MILLIKEN/TRAFFIC


Cheung, Hubert, et al. “China's Legalization of Domestic Rhino Horn Trade: Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner Perspectives and the Likelihood of Prescription.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD,

Daphne Painter. “China and Vietnam Heavily Involved in Global Rhino Horn Trade.” Save The Rhino, 25 June 2018,,in%20China%20during%20this%20period.

“Encouraging Sustainable Sourcing of Wildlife Products in Vietnamese Traditional Medicines and Food Supplements.” Wildlife Trade News from TRAFFIC,

“Rhino Conservation Messages in Vietnam.” Save The Rhino, 19 Dec. 2019,

“Significant Seizure Ahead of World Rhino Day Highlights Southeast Asia's Role in Wildlife Trafficking.” Wildlife Trade News from TRAFFIC, TRAFFIC. The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus - Executive Summary ...

Wildaiddemo. “Consumer Awareness of Ivory and Rhino Horn Trade's Impact Grows Rapidly in China.” WildAid, 25 June 2019,



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