Rhino horn trade’s magic spell

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Klerksdorp Midweek, Klerksdorp - Although rhino numbers have diminished at a shocking rate, there is a scarcity of research into rhino horn consumers who drive demand. Why do consumers prefer rhino horn to other alternatives?

In arguably the first study to investigate magical thinking in relation to the illicit consumption of rhino horn, in-depth inter-views were conducted with 53 rhino horn consumers in the capital city of Hanoi, Vietnam. Vietnam is still a developing country and a consumer society that is recognized as among the world’s largest markets for illicit rhino horn trade. The study examines how illicit consumers of rhino horn engage in magical thinking to pursue and sustain different goals.

Magical thinking can be described as a cognitive distortion where consumers irrationally impart mystical or supernatural attributes to objects or events, especially to cope with stressful situations.

“For the first time ever, we have conducted interviews with the consumers of rhino horn,” explains Professor Melville Saayman, director of the research unit TREES (Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society) at the North-West University.

“It was previously thought that only the rich consume rhino horn, but that is not the case. Poor people will save money to buy rhino horn as a cure for various ailments because they believe it has magical properties. To nullify or prove wrong the belief that rhino horn has magical qualities is the biggest challenge facing rhino conservation,” says Saayman.

“It was further found that distributer of rhino horn prefer horns from rhinos that were poached from their natural habitat rather than artificial environments like game farms. They are also willing to pay more for rhino horn from natural areas.”

The question then is: How do distributers distinguish between these two types of horns?

Saayman: “Through word of mouth. Distributers have influential people in communities who they trust. These people do their homework and won’t be fooled by replicas. They also have an intimate knowledge of where rhino horn is sourced from. We must also remember that the rhino horn trader is run by syndicates who operate within a close circle.”

In a previous study, Saayman and his team showed that rhino horn is a popular ‘cure’ for hangovers, but rhino horn is also used as a ‘cure’ for cancer and similar diseases.

“When people suffering from diseases take rhino horn in conjunction with pharmaceutical medicines, they believe that, because of the perceived magical properties, it was the rhino horn that cured them.”

Addressing this problem entails greater cooperation between local authorities and the Vietnamese government.

“In Vietnam there is a culture of veneration for their local celebrities and it is through them that a message debunking the myth of rhino horn’s magical properties should be communicated. Our government must work with their Vietnamese counterparts to get the message across that rhino horn does not possess magical attributes. Furthermore, government must pressure Vietnam and China to place a ban on the import of rhino horn. It worked for Yemen and there is every reason to believe that it will work there too.”