Rhino Horn User Analysis and Pro-Trade/No-Trade Debate

As many of Breaking The Brand’s supporters know, I have long said that the pro-rhino-horn-trade proponents have no understanding of the current demand or users; I have not once seen any form of customer analysis, which I outlined in a previous blog post. Time and time again they have been asked to produce their user demand analysis and they haven’t; at least now they admit that they don’t understand the nature of the demand: website)


and highlight their gobsmacking belief, I quote from their website ‘The best way to learn about the market is to engage it via legal trade.’ Wow, what can you say to that ridiculous statement!

The reality is that they have an agenda and simply don’t care as long as there is a market or one can be manufactured. In another piece of pro-trade propaganda (, one of their go-to economists, Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes states ‘What they [rhino horns] are used for is hardly relevant. The fact is that people are willing to pay.’ So it won’t be a surprise that Michael is connected with PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center who are developing a ‘free market environmentalism (FME)’ model. From a wildlife perspective their publications have titles such as: If it pays, it stays. I’m sure you are getting the picture.

New Insights Into TCM Market

Whilst most of the evidence points to rhino horn being used primarily as a status symbol in Vietnam, pro-trade groups focus on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) use in China. So I was very interested to read a paper published this month considering the TCM customer group in China, which has a particular focus on traditional animal medicinal materials (TAMs). Click here to read the paper in full

Using questionnaires and interviews with 1,000 Beijing residents, the researchers arrived at the following conclusion: ‘The results demonstrated a stated preference amongst respondents for TAMs derived from wild animals. This preference was most commonly attributed to a belief that TAMs derived from wild animals are more effective than materials from other sources. In contrast, only a few respondents appeared to be motivated by conservation consciousness to choose substitutes or synthetic materials. This is consistent with existing research indicating that consumers of TCM prefer products made from wild sources and believe such products are more potent.’

So this highlights again, that even with their TCM target group, the pro-trade people don’t understand the people they want to sell to (which they have now also admitted:

Often the pro-rhino-horn-trade advocates criticize work done by Western NGO’s, saying they don’t understand the Asian market. So let’s clarify, this research has been done by a number of Chinese academics based at:

  1. Key Laboratory of Animal Ecology and Conservation Biology, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China,
  2. Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China,
  3. College of Agriculture and Biotechnology, Hexi University, Zhangye, China,
  4. College of Biological Sciences, China Agricultural University, Beijing, China,
  5. Endangered Species Scientific Commission of People’s Republic China, Beijing, China,
  6. School of Resources and Environmental Engineering, Anhui University, Hefei, China,
  7. Molecular and Behaviour Ecology Research Group, School of Life Sciences, Central China Normal

So it is difficult for the pro-trade people to question the authors’ credentials (though I am sure they will try!). So let’s look at some of the findings in more detail.

The Purpose of the Research

The paper states that the research was conducted to investigate consumer perceptions of animal materials in TCM and in particular, to examine whether substitution of wild animal-based products may be feasible. Similarly, the researchers sought to determine whether, and if so why, consumers prefer wild-sourced animal materials and evaluate the acceptability of substitutes for wild-sourced animal species in TCM; with a view to answering the following research questions:

  1. What are consumers’ knowledge and perceptions of medicinal animal materials?
  2. Do consumers prefer wild, farmed or substitute medicinal materials, and why?
  3. Can wild-sourced animals species used as TCM be substituted?

The Background

Given traditional medicine has not been Breaking The Brand’s primary focus, I was very interested in some of the background presented in this paper which I didn’t know much about. I was unaware that in China 80% of TCMs are over-the-counter products, with no contact to a TCM practitioners. There is no prescription required and customers exercise their own judgment in purchasing a TCM product.

So while it is good for NGO’s to be educating and getting the support of TCM practitioners, in the end it appears that they are only involved in 20% of TCM purchases in China. As a result, campaigns must target customers directly as consumer preferences are known to play an important role in buying behaviours in the wildlife trade.

The Research Findings

  1. The selection frequencies of “wild”, “farmed”, “substitute”, and “whatever” were 57.18%, 24.45%, 11.75%, and 6.61%, respectively. As the paper say ‘These results demonstrated that most respondents prefer made from wild source than other sources or their substitutes.’
  2. The researchers ‘found that respondents had a stated preference for wild materials over farm-raised and other alternatives because they believe that the effectiveness of wild sourced materials is more credible than that of other sources.’

I have read a number of papers in recent years and this desire for a wild product is also the case in case of wild meat consumption, luxury sea food, bear bile, tiger bone wine and other wildlife products. It was certainly also the feedback I got from the wealthy rhino horn users I interviewed in Viet Nam:

  1. This research also suggests that some consumers:
    1. pay scant attention to the composition of the products
    2. are price conscious, and may be open to a cheaper farmed/synthetic product
    3. that conservation consciousness played in the willingness of respondents to accept substitutes for wild animals, the greater willingness to accept substitutes for highly visible endangered species

As a result, the researchers stated that there is an opportunity to promote a transition to farmed animal, plant and synthetic ingredients via social marketing and education efforts.

  1. They clarify However, it is important to recognize that the relationship between public education efforts and behaviour change is complex and may require numerous engagement strategies.and ‘We believe that it is perhaps time to reframe our view of endangered wildlife from a supply centric perspective to a demand-centric one which places a focus on consumer behaviour change at the heart of our strategies to tackle the threat to endangered wildlife.’
  2. They conclude: ‘Our study confirms the results of previous research that has documented a preference among TCM consumers for wild sourced ingredients.’


Breaking The Brand’s Questions

Just to clarify, I know that the research is about traditional animal medicinal materials (TAMs) in TCM, not only about rhino horn. My comments/questions are however about the insights this paper can provide about the use of rhino horn in TCMs.

Question 1: Investing in Breaking The Brand vs. Changing The Brand

We know that a significant investment in behaviour change campaigns will be needed on the demand side to reduce the demand for rhino horn and change consumer behaviour. The pro-trade lobby use this fact to undermine the potential of such campaigns (from their FAQ)

faq2Yet, given the research findings, the same logic applies equally to any change of consumer behaviour, including moving consumers to buy a farmed instead of a wild product. An investment and long-term social marketing campaign is needed either way:

  1. Brand Breaking – to stop the demand for rhino horn
  2. Brand Changing – to change the demand to a substitute product, farmed or synthetic

So, why not just focus on breaking the brand?

What is the evidence that the pro-traders will invest in behaviour change campaigns to move people from a wild to a farmed product, which the researchers say is needed?

Pro-trade can’t have it both ways: It will take too long and be too expensive to educate people to stop using rhino, but everything will be solved if we can sell 1,500 rhino horns per year in to the Asian market!

Question 2: Challenging Cultural Beliefs

Another argument we seen from the pro-trade group over the years is ‘given Chinese people have a historical culture to use rhino horn and what right do we in the West have to change their cultural belief’. Well if you want to use that argument then by extension, if the historical cultural belief is that wild is best, then what right do pro-traders have to challenge that belief?

Question 3: Farmed rhino horn in China

When it comes to rhino horn, if the Chinese were really interested in a farmed product, why haven’t they farmed their own for the last several hundred years – I wrote about this for Vietnam:

Question 4: More Generally – China’s Economic Growth

Given the need to maintain its economic growth and build a stronger domestic market, the Chinese government has been investing more in stimulating domestic consumption. Pharmaceutical revenue is growing rapidly and there is a massive opportunity for expansion given the size of China’s population.

Medical research is evolving and China is competing more-and-more on the world stage in this area. When there is so much revenue to be made for the Chinese government to educate its citizens to use locally made pharmaceutics, why wouldn’t it invest in promoting its pharmaceutical industry and avoid anything that could send a mix message? Why wouldn’t the government actively promote synthetic TCM substitutes and educate the populate to shift their preferences to synthetic TCM and non-TCM products?

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