By Karl Ammann
So your latest model Ferrari is parked in a prominent spot outside the top five-star hotel in the capital. You are meeting friends for a drink and since it is pleasantly warm you wear a short sleeve shirt so there is no way they can miss the golden Rolex on your left wrist—they will know it is the real thing. But what about your right arm? Maybe a rhino horn bangle worth the same as the wrist watch (about $15,000) would make for a good conversation piece, not yet on the must-have list of most of your friends.
The feeling when traveling through the key urban centers of Vietnam and China is that wealth is only really accepted when it can be presented in a conspicuous way. Status symbols and lifestyle products are what it is all about when competing for social status, and rhino horn jewelry and ivory have become part of this demand characteristic.
We have now visited a household which also serves as a store and workshop on three different occasions. It is about an hour’s drive from Hanoi city center. On all three occasions we saw and documented with hidden camera large amounts of raw and semi-worked ivory including end product souvenir and jewelry items, as well as rhino horn products. Even on our first visit, in 2011, we were offered a rhino horn prayer bead bracelet. We watched the demonstration by the owner shining a torch light through one of the beads and explaining how we could ensure it was the genuine article. Pushing open a door in the basement of the house, we entered a bedroom with a wide range of cut up ivory pieces in cardboard boxes. Some of the ivory was already worked into finished bracelets. Since we had arrived during a local holiday the workshop upstairs was closed, however we managed to film a group of Chinese tourists being brought in by their tour guide to buy a number of chopstick sets as well as bracelets. All items were carefully measured with calipers, which together with a digital scale were part of the paraphernalia used in each sales transaction. When we asked to see some raw rhino horn an iPhone containing images of various horns was pushed into our hands. (Related: “Rhino Wars.”)
The Illegal Trade Continues
On our second visit to the shop earlier this year the story was pretty much the same. This time there were Chinese clients buying the bottom half of a very large rhino horn. They gave their instructions on how to cut it, marking it first with pencil lines which were then followed with a band saw. They explained that these cuts would result in a higher yield of bangles. The cut out inner core would be worked into the beads which would then be shaped into prayer bracelets.
We asked where the horn came from and were told Mozambique (the chance being high that it was a Kruger rhino) via Kenya. This was not very surprising with Mozambique having lost its last rhino earlier in the year and this trade route being well established. We were also told which towns in China the shop owners could deliver to, so Chinese buyers did not have the risk of taking the illegal items across an international border. The carvers also pointed out the best land border where it would be easy to cross back into China with their prohibited merchandise. Since as a westerner there would be less of a risk for me at the border, I actually went as far as testing the water and offered to take some bracelets to our next destination in China. They declined, pointing out that they had it all under control. On this visit we also managed to go upstairs to a workshop where they were filing away at raw ivory pieces turning them into bracelets. We were told that the same machinery would be used to work the rhino horn pieces. More....