By Scott I. Roberton
Recently, the Humane Society International (HSI) and the Vietnam CITES Management Authority (MA) announced that in the last year there has been a 77 percent decrease in the number of people who buy or use rhino horn in Hanoi. If accurate, this finding is an incredibly promising sign of success. Nevertheless, the announcement was met with skepticism by many conservationists, demanding greater scrutiny of the findings. With that in mind, here are some key questions we should be asking.
Are statistically robust monitoring frameworks of consumer attitudes and behaviors in place?
To understand changes in consumer behavior and the intention of individuals to purchase or consume rhino horn in the future (distinct from their simply being aware of the legal and conservation issues involved) requires rigorously collected social and market data.
To date, there have only been four consumer studies focused on rhino horn in Vietnam (2012–2013), each designed with different objectives and data collection methods. These surveys can be broadly characterized as having a restricted sample size, varying in how representative they are. Importantly, they all had different objectives and therefore adopted different methods and asked different questions.
While individually valuable, these surveys are insufficiently consistent to be useful in measuring trends in consumer behavior.
Do other indicators suggest a similar conclusion?
As awareness increases that buying or consuming rhino horn is a crime, fewer people will likely be willing to openly admit in an interview that they do it. So consumer-focused surveys alone are insufficient to draw reliable conclusions on the demand for rhino horn. Furthermore, whilst consumer awareness-raising initiatives are a critical component to demand reduction, alone they do not provide a comprehensive solution.
In Vietnam, government action (or, too often, inaction) is a critically important driver of illegal consumer behavior. In the past, the government has influenced traditional consumptive behaviors of its citizens primarily through policy and effective law enforcement.
In 1995, for instance, Vietnam enacted a ban on firecrackers that had been used in traditional lunar New Year celebrations for hundreds of years with no awareness effort. That ban remains effectively in force. So in addition to analyses of consumer survey data, it is helpful to look at other indicators of a change in demand:
• The informal nature of the rhino horn trade in Vietnam precludes regular, standardized surveys to assess market availability, but anecdotal information suggests that online sales and traders continue to provide horns to Vietnamese consumers and also to Chinese customers visiting Vietnam.
• While celebrities tell us that “when the buying stops, the killing will too,” for now the claim that demand is falling in Vietnam does not reflect a decrease in rhino poaching in Africa. Perhaps we are seeing a time lag effect and poaching will decline eventually. Or demand has declined in Vietnam but significant volumes of rhino horn continue to be purchased elsewhere. But it is also possible that greater public awareness is not translating into a decrease in rhino horn demand.
• Despite the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s directive earlier this year asking law enforcement agencies to improve their responses to rhino horn trafficking, there has been no noticeable increase in arrests, prosecutions, or effective punishments directed toward either buyers or dealers. In the period between August 2013 and August 2014, four persons were arrested for transporting rhino horn, compared to five persons in the preceding 12-month period.
Do we really understand the demand markets for rhino horn?
While Vietnamese nationals have been implicated in hunting rhinos and trafficking rhino horns in (and from) South Africa, the identification of Vietnam as the main market and destination for rhino horns was perhaps made prematurely. Consumer surveys in other Asian states where rhino horn consumption is known or suspected to occur have been limited. However, one such survey showed a significant level of demand for rhino horn among Chinese consumers.
How do we assess the impact of individual campaigns?
While there are a variety of pressures on donors, NGOs, and governments to measure the impact of individual campaigns, the reality is that such assessments are both extremely hard and of questionable value. Over the past year in Vietnam, many conservation NGOs have aired public service announcements on TV and radio, hosted celebrity missions to Africa, and conducted outreach events with corporations, among other actions. It is difficult to reliably measure which had the greatest impact in changing perceptions and behaviors.
Has demand for rhino horn dropped in Vietnam?
To answer this question requires a robust monitoring program that consists of repeated, standardized surveys of consumers on the one hand and an assessment of policies, poaching rates, and enforcement measures on the other – facilitated by coordination between government and non-government groups.
It is premature to say whether there has been a genuine behavior change among consumers towards buying rhino horn in Vietnam and even more so to suggest what may have caused it. But it represents no setback to acknowledge that. In wildlife conservation victories come slowly and methodically. When the fate of a species hangs in the balance we owe it to ourselves to rigorously scrutinize our efforts before declaring victory.
Scott I. Roberton is Vietnam Country Director and Regional Coordinator for Wildlife Trafficking programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society.