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Ferrari factor: How Vietnam's wealthy elite have made rhino horn worth its weight in gold

Customs officials in Thailand and Singapore seized £3.5m worth of rhino horn en route to Vietnam

Hauls of rhino horn with a street value of more than £3.5m have been seized by customs officials in Thailand and Singapore this month alone, according to a report released by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Almost 44kg of rhino horn was discovered en route to Vietnam, where one kilo of horn is worth more than its weight in gold, and sells for around £80,000 on the black market, rivalling the street price of cocaine.

Rhinos are listed as a critically endangered species and only around 25,000 remain in the wild, a fraction of the 100,000 that roamed Africa in the early 20th century.

According to a South African report last week, 2013 was the worst year on record for rhino poaching, with 1,004 animals killed, a 50 per cent increase on the previous year.

As rhino numbers fall, horn has become a status symbol for Vietnam’s new elite, enriched by the country’s rapid economic growth. Jo Shaw, rhino co-ordinator at WWF South Africa, told The Independent that rhino horn now possessed the “Ferrari factor” there.

“People who would buy Ferraris or Rolexes to show off their wealth are now buying rhino horn,” she said. Traditionally, rhino horn was thought to have mystical healing powers. Powdered horn is often used as a health tonic.

According to Traffic, Thai customs seized 21.8kg of rhino horn in Bangkok this month and a further 22kg in Singapore. In both cases, passengers had smuggled horn from Kenya and were on their way to Vietnam. In Singapore, the smuggler was convicted on 16 January and jailed for 15 months.

Rhinos killed in South Africa, particularly at Kruger National Park, are smuggled over the border into Mozambique, where laws against poaching and smuggling are poorly enforced. From there, horn reaches Asia through a variety of routes. Busy airports in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong are often transit points for smugglers on their way to Vietnam.

Dr Chris Shepherd, regional director of Traffic in South-East Asia praised the Thai and Singapore customs staff, adding: “The authorities in Singapore are to be congratulated further on making an important arrest and rapid conviction – an opportunity to learn more about the rhino-horn smuggling networks.”

However, Naomi Doak, programme co-ordinator at Traffic in Vietnam, explained that enforcement against wildlife trafficking was still lacking: “The seizure in Singapore had passed through at least four airports before being detected on a very long and convoluted travel path,” she said.

“This means four airport authorities failed to detect, or seize, the items.”

Though Chinese medicine is used across the Far East and even in the West, there is little demand for rhino horn outside Vietnam and China. The Vietnamese press has raised awareness of the poaching crisis in Africa, but demand for horn remains higher than ever.

“Vietnam no longer has rhinos so it is often difficult for consumers to make these connections between demand and animals as far away as South Africa,” said Ms Doak.

The Independent’s campaign with Space for Giants, a Kenya-based organisation, is committed to ending poaching in Africa. Follow our campaign page in the run-up to the London conference on 13 February, when heads of state from across the world will gather to find a global solution to wildlife crime.