nobody needs a rhino hornI, like many people around the world, was disgusted at the sales of rhino horn in Sydney and Melbourne last week. As someone who calls Australia home feeling ashamed of the stupidity, naivety, greed and ignorance that enables this to happen was also part of the list of emotions I experienced.

Having visited many rhino range countries and spoken with the people dealing with the tragedy of the current rhino slaughter, who are too regularly confronted with the death and mutilation of the rhinos in their care, I can only imagine how angry they must feel (  at this uncaring act. Peter Fish’s first line in his Australian Financial Revive article reporting on the sales must have felt like someone was ‘rubbing salt into an open wound’ ( ). He started with “Rhinoceros horn might not be the most politically correct of collectibles”. Well No Shit Sherlock!

But before anyone accuses me of being overly emotional and reminds me that what these auction rooms did isn’t actually currently illegal under Australian law, let look at the facts. Legality of these auctions is based on provenance – being able to prove that the item being put up for auction falls outside the current prohibition of sale because of its pre-ban/antique status.

How easy is it to produce a fake?

In an August 2014 article by Julian Rademeyer he details the case of Li Zhifei,Li Zhifei arrested in Florida in 2013, who pleaded guilty to 11 counts of smuggling. According to his business card Li owned an antique business, in China’s Shandong province, called “Overseas Treasure Finding”. Li was supposedly a treasure hunter whose exclusive clientele was mainly wealthy men.

But Li was more than happy to dupe his wealthy clients. The article states that Li took nearly 25 horns from poached rhinos to secret workshops. According to Li, the horns were then fashioned into copies of exquisitely carved antiques. Commonly referred to in China aszuo jiu – literally “made old” – the fakes would be shopped to the greedy and the gullible.

The same article also highlights that evidence has emerged of hidden “factories” in parts of Hanoi where rhino horns are carved into bracelets, bangles and libation cups for Chinese clients.

Given that artisans can produce copies of ‘exquisitely carved antiques’ it wouldn’t be too much of a leap to say that other artisans can produce the forged paperwork to create the corresponding fake provenance.

This was even outlined in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in March 2013:

The article states that European Union authorities, in a presentation on the international wildlife protection treaty in 2012, highlighted the ”road to Australia” as a key avenue for the rhino horn trade, with figures showing a dramatic increase in re-export applications since 2008 to China, Hong Kong and Australia.

In the same article Humane Society campaigner Michael Kennedy said: ”Smugglers are very smart people and a lot of the time certificates are forged…..These things are not hard to achieve. It is part of the game that international crime plays when it comes to this highly valuable commodity.” So the concern about the authenticity of these supposed antiques and the corresponding paperwork has been circulating in the Australian press for some time.

Indeed, I’m sure local conservation organisations felt that there had been a breakthrough when a Sydney auction house withdrew black rhinoceros horns from a sale in 2014 less than an hour after animal conservationists launched a social media campaign demanding the items be removed:

From the article: “In line with feedback we had from clients, individuals and conservation bodies, we decided it’s not in anyone’s interest to sell [the horns],” said Simon Hill, general manager of Lawsons. “We decided the correct thing was to withdraw it and not encourage the sale of these kinds of items in the future. Even if it doesn’t encourage trade, it’s the right thing to do and should be treated with scepticism.”

Well that sentiment from the auction houses didn’t last very long!

Provanance BookTo understand the extraordinary lengths that people go to, given the scale of the financial benefits involved, you might want to read Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art.

We certainly have to assume based on the evidence that this ‘legal’ auction market for rhino horn ‘antiques’ can and will be used to launder horns from recently poached rhinos.

The next piece of the puzzle then is getting the horns into Australia; where do the ‘mules’ come from who are willing to risk their freedom?

How are the mules recruited?

A June 2015 article by Australian based journalist Mic Smith: Amid rhinoceros poaching frenzy, dark days for South African society states “Many Vietnamese on trial, most of them couriers”. If Vietnamese are being groomed as couriers to carry rhino horn from Africa to Asia, then they could also be groomed to carry illegal wildlife products from Asia to Australia.

So I was interested in a May 2015 article, in The Age, detailing research on the increasing number of Vietnamese Australian women being recruited as mules:

Crown Viet NamThe article states that: Vietnamese women who are being jailed in record numbers say they turned to crime to pay gambling debts suffered at Crown Casino in Melbourne.

The women had debts of between $30,000 and $1 million when they were offered loans by other Vietnamese ‘gamblers’ at the casino’s blackjack, baccarat or poker tables.When the women were unable to repay the loans, they were offered the chance to import heroin as drug mules.

As part of the Swinburne University research, Roslyn Le interviewed almost every Vietnamese woman serving a Victorian prison sentence for a drug offence. She found that, in 2011, about one in five women in Victorian prisons was Vietnamese. Four years earlier, that figure was one in 20.

So we know from this research that it is easy to lure desperate gamblers into becoming drug mules. We also know that trafficking high-value illegal wildlife products has a similar return on investment to trafficking drugs like heroin – the cost per gram makes the risks worthwhile. So again, it doesn’t take much of a leap to assume that some of these mules could be used to traffic rhino horn to supply the ‘legal’ auction market.

The Australian Customer Base

One of the best things about living in Australia is the cultural diversity. Since arriving in the country in 1996 I have relished developing a network of people who originate from Vietnam, Malaysia, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Africa, Sudan, Argentina, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, China the list goes on-and-on. Indeed, it is my Vietnamese friends that have help bridge me into Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh to do much of my initial research. The history between China and Australia reaches back to the gold rush, but it is in the last decade that the number of wealthy Chinese residents has grown significantly.

While I know that people from any background could have an interest in these carved rhino horn antiques, research, currently been undertaken, shows that they are of particular interest to the wealthy Chinese collector/investor. This makes Australia an ideal country to target with the types of forgeries mentioned by Li Zhifei.

The Auction Industry

It is not only the auction rooms that are being monitored. Sales of rhino horn (and ivory etc.) on live-auction sites and sales via the likes of ebay, craigslist, gumtree etc. are being increasingly measured to understand the trends. Soon to be published research by GAO Yufang, a Chinese researcher affiliated with Yale University, focuses on Art Investment and Rhino Horn Consumption in China. Gao and his fellow researchers analysed auction records from across the China from 2000 to 2014. Detailed records were also collected directly from China Guardian, one of the largest auction houses for rhino horn trade in China. Their results shows a significant correlation between the volume of rhino horn auctioned in China and the rate of rhino poached in South Africa. Among the types of rhino horn items auctioned, carved containers procure the highest price realized for a single item and the highest price per gram. I am very grateful to Gao to enable me to publish an overview of the research he is involved in and I am looking forward to its publication; it will make a very value contribution to tackling the demand for rhino horn.

Work by Fiona Gordon, a New Zealand based policy analyst, who has generously helped with some of the background for this article by providing a condensed history of articles on rhino horn sales in the Australian media. As Fiona points out “This latest rhino horn sale in Australia isn’t the first time we have seen such high prices for elaborately carved rhino horn in the South Pacific. Back in 2013 a pair of 19th century Chinese carved rhinoceros horns sold at auction for NZD $797,300, exceeding the high estimate by 454%. Reportedly it was one of the highest prices achieved for antique carved rhinoceros horns globally.” She adds that, “the NZ auction house noted at the time that, ‘the value of such notable and distinguished provenance is high given the present-day existence of a black market for rhinoceros horns’  Read full auction article here:

WildAct - Illusion of ControlThe trade of rhino horn products has been banned in China since 1993. What is interesting is that in December 2011, China’s wildlife authority issued a special notice reiterating the policy that “whenever the products were made, the purchasing, transporting, and selling of wildlife products shall comply with the relevant wildlife laws and regulation”, resulting in an auction ban.

The importance of this Chinese ban of rhino horn sales is brought home given the October 2015 report released by WildAid and African Wildlife Foundation, The Illusion of Control: Hong Kong’s Legal Ivory Trade. The report states Hong Kong’s “legal” ivory market is wilfully obstructing newly announced efforts by China and the United States to end ivory sales.

WildAid and African Wildlife Foundation call on the Hong Kong government to ban ivory sales, and to conduct an independent inquiry to address long-standing regulatory loopholes.

The statement made in the executive summary of the report could not be clearer: In short, Hong Kong has been the ivory poacher’s and smuggler’s laundry. To read the report in full:

Australia’s Response

So in Australia, do we need make sure that our country doesn’t become the rhino poachers and smugglers laundry? As the auction market in China is more heavily policed and monitored could this drive more-and-more rhino horn to make its way to Australia?

Research already indicates that Australia is seen as a destination country, where there is increasing demand. We certainly can’t afford to be naïve. I shudder when I read some of the comments made in the March 2014 article: Lawson’s general manager, Simon Hill, said “It was wrong to assume that the antique horns would end up ground into powder. I have Asian Australian clients who have bought them to display as a symbol of wealth and as an investment.” !!!!!!!

Minimal research shows that the primary driver of the current rhino poaching crisis is the fact that rhino horn is seen and used as a status symbol.

Many of Breaking The Brands supporters know that my ‘day job’ is as an executive coach in the Australian business sector. The above quote linked me back to a leadership program I saw some years ago. A leadership expert from one of the major international business schools gave a presentation in which he very amusingly linked the perception of a county’s leadership ability to a persona. When asked what character the world would link to Australia given its perceived leadership skills, his answer was “The Dumb Blonde”.

Let’s not let Australia be the Dumb Blonde when it comes to the rhino poaching crisis. Let’s ask our government to ban all rhino sales, imports and exports, whatever the age of the item and to address any other regulatory loopholes.

These are the views of the author: Dr. Lynn Johnson, Founder, Breaking the Brand