JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The carcass of the poached rhino was about a week old when the Vietnamese delegation saw it in a South African wildlife park. There was a strong smell of rot, and animals had scavenged most of the meat. Rangers found the bullet that killed it by scouring the ground with a metal detector. The rhino horn was gone, hacked off its snout.
"They could see the chop marks, the axe marks on the skull," conservationist Andrew Paterson said Tuesday of the half a dozen Vietnamese, who had traveled to South Africa to learn about the illegal trade in rhino horns, fueled in large part by demand in Vietnam.
The diverse group from Vietnam, which included a politician, a comedian and a police officer, was brought to South Africa, home to the vast majority of the world's rhinos, in a campaign to raise public awareness in Vietnam about the intensifying poaching problem. The aim is to fight perceptions among some Vietnamese that rhino horn is a status symbol and a healing agent for serious illness, though lax law enforcement and alleged corruption are slowing the effort.
There is no evidence that rhino horn, made from the same material as fingernails, is an effective medicine. Paterson, CEO of the non-profit Rhinose Foundation, said the spread of an "urban legend" in recent years that ingesting the horn can cure cancer contributed to an explosive demand and an ensuing surge in poaching.
Buyers and users of rhino horn often give it as a gift to relatives, business colleagues or figures of authority, and they associate it with a feeling of "peace of mind," according to consumer research by two conservation groups, WWF and TRAFFIC. Jo Shaw, rhino coordinator for WWF in South Africa, said in a statement Tuesday that typical users of rhino horn are successful, well-educated men over the age of 40 who live in urban areas and value a luxury lifestyle.
As of late last week, some 635 rhinos have been poached in South Africa this year, according to government figures. That's just 33 short of the total number killed in 2012, and at the current rate, the total number of slain rhinos in 2013 could exceed 800.
The Vietnamese delegates who were taken in two helicopters to the carcass in Kruger National Park on Sept. 12 were seeing the 397th rhino to be poached there, according to Paterson, whose foundation helped organize the trip from Vietnam. The Kruger park is adjacent to Mozambique, home to many poachers from poor areas who cross over in search of rhino and then sell the horn up an illegal chain that often involves international criminal syndicates.
"I was so sorry to see the dead rhino at the crime scene," said Vo Tuan Nhan, a member of Vietnam's National Assembly and deputy chairman of a parliamentary committee that addresses environmental issues.
Another delegate, comedian and actor Nguyen Xuan Bac, has a large Vietnamese following on social media and he said he planned "funny performances" on his return that would show how rhino horn does not improve health. He said he had a friend who used rhino horn to try to combat liver disease, but still ended up in a hospital, where he received Western-style treatment.
The delegation also included a journalist, the deputy of environmental police in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, and members of Education for Nature-Vietnam, a non-governmental organization.
Douglas Hendrie, an adviser to the Vietnamese NGO, said public service announcements on Vietnamese media educate people about the illegal rhino horn market. He said users are believed to include government employees, business executives and sick people who use it as a last resort in hopes of a cure. The rhino horn consumers, however, hard to find.
"It's a minority of society that's doing this damage here," he said. "One of the difficulties we have is: How do we get to these people? We can't even identify exactly who they are."