Student tackles rhino horn trade
World Rhino Day was celebrated last Saturday, September 22. This celebrates all five species of rhino: black, white, greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan rhinos.
It was first announced by WWF-South Africa in 2010, but the following year, World Rhino Day grew into an international success, encompassing both African and Asian rhino species, thanks to the efforts of two determined women - Lisa Jane Campbell of Zimbabwe and Rhishja Larson.
Meagan Spies, who grew up in Oudsthoorn, but whose parents live in Mossel Bay, is doing her own groundbreaking work towards the conservation of this highly endangered species. The Mossel Bay Advertiser asked Meagan, who is currently continuing her studies in Vietnam, about the nature of her work.
Meagan completed her undergradute studies at the University of Cape Town and her honours at the University of South Africa, through which she is also working on her masters degree.
1. How did it come about that you chose your field of study?
I chose environmental management since it is a field that resonates with me. While I was living in Vietnam, I felt that I was in a unique situation, being from South Africa on the one hand, the source of rhino horn and living in the country with the highest demand in rhino, on the other hand to do more research.
2. Tell us more about your research?
I started doing more research on the rhino horn trade between South Africa and Vietnam and chose to do my thesis on The awareness of Vietnamese University Students of the rhino horn trade between South Africa and Vietnam. Since the rhino horn trade is a relatively new issue, there isn't any research available on this specific research question. I decided to focus on this since 98% of rhino horn consumers in Vietnam have at least a bachelor's degree therefore current university students are the next potential users. If more relevant information is available on how Vietnamese university students perceive the trade it is possible to introduce accurate information into relevant curriculae and have more campaigns at universities.
3. Give us a background picture of the rhino in the context of South Africa and Vietnam?
The rhinocerotidae which is considered the modern day rhino family has existed since the late Eocene, which is roughly 35 million years ago. Many species have become extinct and only five rhino species remain today. South Africa, is home to approximately 90 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos. However, this population is currently at risk of extinction due to the rapid increase in demand of the rhino horn in Vietnam and resultant increased poaching of the rhino in South Africa.
4. Are there any complexities regarding the trade?
Yes, the issue regarding the rhino horn trade is very complex. Currently, approximately 1 000 rhinos are killed every year in South Africa compared to the previous average of 15 between 1980 and 2007. The rhino horn trade is complex in nature and is interconnected with poverty in South Africa as well as a lucrative industry for crime syndicates, which often make solutions seem unattainable. Vietnam has been identified as the number one end user market for rhino horn (with 80% of rhino horn ending up in Vietnam).
The primary consumers have been identified as the rich, powerful and educated Vietnamese between the ages of 35 and 50. One of the major reasons for consuming rhino horn is to show status or prestige. This may often seem ludicrous to say the least, but it is often used as a substance at high-end gatherings or parties.
It is ground up and mixed with water and then drunk. Essentially it is showing that if you attended a party where rhino horn is consumed, you are an important person or even more so if you have supplied or brought it. Since the Vietnamese economy is continuing to grow, with a growing middle and upper class, it makes solutions challenging. While doing my research, I have on several occasions come across people who casually mentioned that they have rhino horn at their home or have used rhino horn. Even during these cases, it was found that the users or owners of rhino horn didn't know that Vietnam is the largest culprit in the trade. Furthermore, since the rhino horn trade is controlled by crime syndicates, it involves a sense of danger for those who are involved in trying to stop the trade.
5. What are you seeking to achieve through your research?
Essentially the goal is to be part of minimising or ultimately illuminating the poaching of rhinos in South Africa for the very unnecessary trade of rhino horn.
I will be looking at joining or collaborating with projects or companies with similar goals. I am hoping to be part of campaigns, particularly at Universities that provide information on the trade and the effect that Vietnam has on the existence of rhinos in South Africa.
6. How effective do you feel awareness programmes are, such as World Rhino Day? What could be done to improve awareness?
Of course any form of awareness on this issue is important and one hopes that at the end of the day, it allows for change.
I have found that this often isn't as effectively broadcast in the countries where the demand takes place such as in Vietnam.
There is a lot of money involved with this illegal trade of rhino horn (where rhino horn can fetch up to US$100/kg which is about R140 000/kg).
When such large amounts of money is involved and there is a high demand for a "product" it is almost inevitable for crime syndicates to take advantage of this. Therefore, drastic initiatives and campaigns should be taking place in Vietnam.
* Meagan returns home to Mossel Bay once a year.
Meagan Spies is busy with her masters degree.