Trang Nguyen croppedIn October 2014 I had the pleasure of meeting Trang Nguyen a Vietnamese conservationist and the Founder/Director of Vietnamese based NGO WildAct (  I was in Hanoi to review the response the BTB’s pilot RhiNo campaign; Trang and I spent a day together talking about our observations of the complexities of the rhino conservation – supply – demand chain. As we talked we walked around the streets of the old town, past traditional medicine shops. Trang patiently translated any rhino marketing materials, some promoting the rhino horn grinding dish while others had notices saying it was illegal to sell rhino horn. Since then we have collaborated on a Lunar New Year project and keep in regular contact.

An Insight of the Rhino Crisis in Viet Nam – by Trang Nguyen, Founder WildAct Viet Nam

WildAct-Logo-275African rhinos are being slaughtered and Viet Nam needs to take a big share of the blame. Increasing demand from Viet Nam is driving the poaching crisis on the African continent. Vietnamese not only use rhino horn as an ingredient in traditional medicine but also as a luxury item to show off to peers or a ‘gift’ for corruption to gain favours.

Many Vietnamese consumers use rhino horn as a cure for disease. According to traditional medicine books rhino horn can be used to reduce fever, enhance blood quality, improve sexual performance and for detoxification purposes. You might asked why they don’t use western medicine. This is because many people in Viet Nam think that Western medicines can have bad side effects, whereas traditional medicines do not have any side effects and can cure the disease completely.

Recently many Vietnamese people started to consume rhino horn on its own as part of a new trend. People believe that rhino horn powder mixed with water or alcohol can be used as a special type of tonic to treat hangovers; they are mostly used by the middle and upper class people in Viet Nam. The belief that rhino horn can cure cancer is also new but there is no evidence to support this idea. This was not recorded in any of the traditional medicine book, including the five traditional medicine pharmacopoeias published and promoting the use of rhino horn as medicine from 2002 — 2007. A report from TRAFFIC (2012) suggested that this was a rumour made up by the dealers to gain more benefit from selling rhino horn. As cancer is the cause of deaths of nearly 82,000 Vietnamese people each year (International Agency for Research on Cancer) and the medical facilities are poor, people turn to rhino horn as a ‘last hope’.

The rhino crisis also affected by corruption in Viet Nam:

  • Between 2006 and 2008, three diplomats at the Vietnamese Embassy in Pretoria were linked to embarrassing rhino trafficking scandals — including one caught on tape. However, these officers were not prosecuted nor fired. This news was not published in Viet Nam.
  • In 2012 the minister of the police department announced to the public that “he did not think bribery is a form of corruption”.
  • In 2013, the minister of health stated to the public “that doctors can take extra money from their patients”.

It is obvious that bribery has been accepted as a ‘normal’ activity at some level by the society. What can be more expensive and precious than a rhino horn to send as a gift to your boss? It is more expensive than gold, and have may have ‘magical powers’ to cure disease! Furthermore, once the horn gets into Viet Nam without being caught at the border, you will not be arrested for using it.

People in Viet Nam are also confused when it comes to deciding if rhino horn has any effect or not. This is because they have information from conservationists and non-government organisations (mostly from western countries/foreigners) stating “Rhino horn is not medicine”. Whereas traditional medicine doctors, including those who are professors at medical universities, announce on the television or newspaper that “Rhino horns can cure some diseases, but maybe you should not use it because it will cause extinction to the rhino”. The same statement has been made by a famous Vietnamese comedian, who has been to South Africa as a rhino ambassador on one of the most famous TV show in Viet Nam during the Lunar New Year. In addition, a famous Vietnamese professor answered to a newspaper that “rhino horn did not make men stronger in sexual activities but if you take a lot of it you will be weaker”. This statement somehow confirms the “effective” of rhino horn, as if it can make you weaker, it can make you stronger if you know how to use it.

Rhino horn is also being used in Viet Nam as a luxury item. Using expensive, luxury item is a best way to show off your wealth and power. Here is an example of how powerful something considered as “luxury” can control the Vietnamese people behaviour: A local media reported a Vietnamese girl flew from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City just to queue outside of Starbucks for two hours when this ‘American street coffee’ first got to Viet Nam. In many Vietnamese people mind, Starbuck is ‘luxury’. Even if some people don’t really like using rhino horns, they still want to have it. To show off.

Last but not least, education plays an important role. But education programs on conservation, environment and biology are very poor in Viet Nam. People don’t really learn about biodiversity, the function of ecosystem or the role of wild animals in school and only very little at university. Many people don’t understand why they should care about the animals in Africa. Rhino conservation campaigns and media in Viet Nam do not give enough information to people on these important matters. Why should they conserve the rhino? What is the role of the rhino in the ecosystem? How poaching and wildlife trafficking links with criminal activities? This important information is not yet stressed enough in Viet Nam.

Something to bear in mind:

  1. Rhino horn is consumed mostly by men in Viet Nam. But the buyers are mostly women. They buy rhino horn for their husband and family members to use as medication, or helping their husband to get higher status.
  2. To conserve the rhino, we have to change these people minds. But how? We have to make them see the link between human welfare and animal existence. Give them fact, give them real stories. Tell them how many rangers have died when trying to protect these animals, make them see how buying rhino horn can fund criminal activities, give them fact that directly affecting them or affecting humanity.
  3. Always remember, we also have to deal with the corruption issue!
  4. Education is the key to stopping the rhino crisis in the long term.

We can win this war, but only when communities that live on the borders of rhino reserves understand why rhinos need to be conserved, how they can benefit from rhino conservation and why poaching is unsustainable. Similarly, when consumers in Asia understand that using rhino horn not only means pushing the rhino to extinction but also putting the lives of many African people at risk When the youth of both continents get talking to each other and speak out together, only then will we truly succeed in saving rhinos.
by Trang Nguyen, Founder WildAct Viet Nam

More about Trang and WildAct Viet Nam

tusk-to-tailTrang believes that there is a big gap in knowledge about the poaching crisis of large mammals such as elephants and rhinos between the ‘source’ continent of Africa and the ‘end-use markets’ of Asia. She believes that the misunderstanding and miscommunication between the two continents is seriously undermine conservation efforts. She is therefore seeking out opportunities in to address this crisis and bridge the gap using her own knowledge of Asian cultures and her work experience Africa.

Trang’s knowledge about the users of rhino horn and other wildlife products in Viet Nam helped her to win first prize for her poster, summarizing the users, at the ATBC (Association for Tropical Biology & Conservation) conference.

Given Trang and WildAct’s understanding of the primary users of genuine rhino horn, they too believe that rhino infusion is a good methodology to trigger behaviour change in Viet Nam. As a result they recently launched campaigns highlighting the infusion process.

 doctors1 In December 2014 WildAct Viet Nam ( created and delivered workshops for doctors and nurses in ‘Western’ medicine hospitals. The workshops are proving very valuable and as Trang observed “The doctors and nurses were particularly engaged when images and videos of horn infusion were presented to the group.”During this period posters illustrating the horn infusion process were placed in patient waiting rooms throughout major cities. These two campaigns introduced the plight of the rhino and reiterated the fact that rhino horn has no medicinal benefits. They also focused on the rhino horn infusion process and the potential health implications for people consuming tainted horn.

red-envelopesSimilarly, in the lead up to the Vietnamese New Year holiday on 19th February 2015 over 10,000 red envelopes, which are of key cultural importance to the holiday, were distributed in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. These envelopes highlighted the horn infusions process. Breaking the Brand partnered with WildAct with this campaign distributing 1,000 envelopes in the Vietnamese community in Australia.

wild-act2In the last week Trang and the WildAct Viet Nam team joined forces with Allison Thomson and the OSCAP team in South Africa for the #StopKillingOurRhinos and #VietnameseSpeakOutforRhino initiative and continued her commitment to raise the profile of the rhino poaching tragedy that links their two countries.

runescape1runescape2Trang’s commitment to wildlife conservation has resulted in her not only being profiled on the United for Wildlife website but she has also been featured in a popular online game RuneScape, during their Rhino Awareness month to raise awareness about the plight of the rhino in Africa, which is part of the Gaming for Good project. Trang has a BSc (Hons) in Wildlife Conservation, MSc in Primate Conservation and an MPhil Conservation Leadership. She will be starting her PhD later in 2015.

She is profiled on the United for Wildlife  website:!/causes/trang-nguyen

She was one of the presenters at a Royal Geography Society talk by FFI and can be seen on the video

Breaking The Brand looks forward our continued collaboration with Trang and the WildAct team.