The Saigon Horn : Part 1

  I was having coffee at Vasco’s with Phung the husband of an English friend of mine in the quiet backbar. Live music played in the background, but it was still too early in the evening for the club in downtown Saigon’s Hai Ba Trung St to get hectic. It was January 2011 during the weeks coming up to Tet or Chinese New Year and everything was winding down for the most anticipated holiday of the year. Phung owned a video production company and was talking about a movie-industry Tet party he’d attended. It suddenly occurred to me to ask him about a story I was working on. Had he tried rhino horn because I’d heard its use was spreading among Vietnam’s elite? He hadn’t he said, but broke out his iPhone and found a popular website in Vietnamese, 

Phung read the site then translated. The article said the whole body of the rhino is a “miracle medicine”. Even its shit is a miracle – a pain killer – when drank with alcohol. In an article called “Why is rhino horn more expensive than gold” the writer claimed to have drank some of this rhino-dung alcohol made by a man named Viet from Cat Tien National Park (Rhinos had lived in Cat Tien National Park, which is near Saigon, until early 2010).  He claimed it had reinvigorated him after an exhausting day of trekking in the forest. I told Phung cynically that it would be a miracle feeling better after a strong drink mixed with rhino dung and added that the account of drinking shit only showed how desperate some Vietnamese were to experience the famed rhino elixir. Phung totally gobsmacked me by saying that he believed it.

“Why would there be so much talk if it wasn’t true,” was his reasoning.

At that time I’d known Phung for about three years and he was one of the few Vietnamese men I knew that I could converse and joke with like with a Westerner. But that’s the way it is with deep-set cultural beliefs – Phung was very westernized yet he was first and foremost Vietnamese. Oddly enough the video-maker had studied Western pharmacology in HCMC at college (Truong Trung hoc ky Thuat y te trung Vong 3) at the end of the 80s and was indoctrinated into the miracle of rhino horn by his back-then somewhat alcoholic professor. 

After we were moved to another table to make room for a large group of Vietnamese students, Phung scrolled further down on his iPhone, translating the most pertinent exerts as he went: ‘Rhino horn is more effective than Viagra allowing men to have sex for two to four hours’; and ‘rhinos eat a special type of thorny plant, known in Vietnam as La Gai that gives the horn its special powers’. The next day he emailed me two more websites in Vietnamese that are respected and popular in Saigon along with a summary in English of what they said. (the website of an official government newspaper called the Security of the Capital) and ( both spoke highly of the benefits of rhino horn. One article, “Does Rhino Horn Cure Cancer”, dispelled the cancer-cure myth that was growing everywhere in Saigon, but followed with a glowing review of its powers to improve concentration and cure hangovers.

I had been in Vietnam for two and a half years before the illegal trade in rhino horn came to my attention. An email landed in my gmail inbox about a rhino skeleton found with its horn posthumously removed. It was discovered in a gully in Cat Tien National Park on April 29, 2010. With a bit of investigation, I worked out that the rhino had been shot on WWF’s watch, during a WWF rhino-dung sniffer dog project in the park to ascertain how many of this highly endangered species were still left. An online blog documented the process. The death was a major blow considering the statement of Hien Tran Minh, Country Director for WWF Vietnam made when the project began. “The rhino is not only a rare animal unique to this country, but protecting the rhino is a flagship for conservation efforts in Vietnam.” 

WWF had estimated the rhino numbers in Cat Tien before the project were a maximum of 10, but the new data and the death dropped the estimate to an official zero. Vietnam’s last rhino had been killed for its horn, WWF said.

I was in Da Nang in Central Vietnam about a year after that when I set up an interview with a wildlife vet who’d been at the last rhino’s postmortem. I listened to a description of the rhino’s death. It had been long and painful. It had been shot in the leg and developed a severe infection three months before it died. “If you had such an ulceration around the bone the leg would have looked terrible… It may have died from the fall [into the gully], septicemia or another bullet,” the vet said.

It was the day after Da Nang’s annual fire works festival. In a café overlooking the Central city’s slow moving river, Dr. Ulrike Streicher described the feeling in WWF at the time of the death of Vietnam’s last rhino. 

“It felt like a failure. Especially the last animal in the country. The animal had been evading scientists for so long. Such a smart animal but they [the poachers] still found it.”

“Nothing is safe. If a million Vietnamese would cry it wouldn’t matter to the poacher.”

“The silence at the end. We thought the Vietnamese [government] would be really embarrassed but they just silently stepped over it.”

She said it took three months to persuade the government to approve the autopsy. She blamed the death on the internet.

Horns from South Africa

“I am not going to confront the Vietnamese, but I am going to put it very clearly and diplomatically to them that our rhinos are getting killed, that rhino horn is being smuggled out of South Africa and that we are concerned about that,” South African Minister for Environmental Affairs Bulelwa Sonjica told Johannesburg’s Beeld newspaper in October 2010 before last year’s meeting between the two countries to discuss a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to collaborate on natural resource management wildlife protection and law enforcement to protect rhinos.

Five months earlier, 30 minutes before the opening of the World Cup in South Africa, two Vietnamese, no doubt slightly perturbed by the chorus of a million vuvuzelas , were arrested at the airport in Johannesburg as they tried to smuggle out 20 rhino horns. Horns on average weigh 7kg each and were valued on the Asian blackmarket at that time at up to US$20,000/kg or US$1200/gram. Two weeks later in a South African court room on June 30, Magistrate Manyathi sentenced another Vietnamese, Mr. Xuan Hoang, to 10 years imprisonment, the magistrate saying he wanted to send a strong message to Vietnam with this sentence, as fines did not seem to be a deterrent to them. 



This is the first installment of  ”Saigon Horn.”  Part  two  follows.