How rhino horns end up in Asian jewelry shops

Your latest model Ferrari is parked in a prominent spot outside the top five-star hotel in the capital.

How rhino horns end up in Asian jewelry shops

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 U$15,000) would make for a good conversation piece, not yet on the must have list of most of your friends.

The feeling when travelling 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 the 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 buying a number of chop stick 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 such sales transaction. When we asked to see some raw rhino horn an iPhone containing images of various horns was pushed into our hands.

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 the highest yield of bangles. The cut out inner core would be worked into the beads which would then be shaped into prayer bracelets.

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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 on 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.

Back downstairs we ended up in the main sales and display room again, looking at various pieces of worked ivory, chop sticks and bangles. There were a few cardboard boxes half open and when I reached in I pulled out some cylindrical objects painted dark brown with a new year’s wish written on the side in Vietnamese.

The objects were too heavy to be wood and when I asked, it was explained to me that it was ivory disguised as wood to transport it without any problems. Not surprisingly a few months later two Vietnamese travelers were arrested at Jomo Kenyatta airport with exactly these kinds of ‘wooden’ souvenir items. The story of the minimal sentences they received was well documented in the Kenyan press. I was now convinced the owners of this home and shop were indeed key players in the rhino horn and ivory trade business, not just middlemen and women, but had their own couriers importing for them.

I sent back a local contact with a hidden camera and he encountered yet another group of Chinese tourists having been taken to the shop by their guide, negotiating and buying various items. There was a large chunk of rhino horn with telltale pieces cut out of it. My local investigator asked if this was the same horn as last time: “No, No. We go through several horns a week and we can no longer keep up with the demand for bangles selling hundreds of them at about U$10-15,000 a pop – depending on weight.” All these discussions were recorded and transcribed and the price remained constant whichever rhino horn items were being discussed. U$45,000 per kg was the basis for all calculations. Ivory was U$1,200 per kg. Our man was told that some Chinese buyers purchase up to ten of these bracelets in one go and then resell them back home. He also learnt that the shop owner has a sister who operates a very similar establishment 100 meters further down the same road.

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