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JOHANNESBURG - Professional businessmen, celebrities, and government officials in Vietnam buy and use rhino horn to strengthen their social status, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-SA) said on Tuesday.
These upper-middle class individuals operated in tight social networks with relationships based on prestige and honour, WWF-SA rhino co-ordinator Dr Jo Shaw told reporters in Cape Town.
"They are the most important people in their own lives. Masculinity is a very strong aspect of who they are," she said.
"There is an important element of social pressure. If everyone in your group has it and you don't, it is hard to keep up."
The findings form part of WWF-SA funded research in Vietnam between November 2012 and March this year, in which 720 people were surveyed in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
The research was commissioned by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC and was assisted by the marketing research company, IPSOS.
Shaw said understanding who the consumers of rhino horn were was key in the fight against rhino poaching.
There was an ongoing campaign to change the attitudes and behaviours of powerful individuals from within Vietnam, in association with the health ministry and the traditional medicines association.
The research found that while buyers and users tended to be wealthier men over the age of 40, older wealthy women were often only buyers who supplied their family members.
A large group of people who had not bought or were not using rhino horn intended to do so in future.
"Intenders want to become buyers and users of rhino horn as it is favoured and valued by those they want to impress," TRAFFIC Greater Mekong Programme researcher Dr Naomi Doak said.
"They have already made a conscious decision to purchase rhino horn even though they know it is illegal."
Intenders lived in the same community, were slightly younger, and were not as wealthy.
WWF-SA identified shifts in retail trends and behaviour.
Rhino horn used to be widely available in the retail market, but was now being distributed in networks through word-of-mouth and trusted middlemen.
Doak, who is based in Vietnam, said the Vietnamese now also wanted to buy an entire horn, whereas previously they were satisfied with just pieces of it.
Horns were gifted in boxes or ground and added to water or alcohol in rhino-emblazoned ceramic dishes.
Possessing rhino horn was said to bring peace of mind because it had many uses, one of them to apparently reduce toxins in the body.
It was believed that consuming rhino horn made individuals more comfortable in their bodies, gave them better appetites and more regulated temperatures.
Doak found that individuals did not react strongly to photos of rhino savaged by poachers.
Most were also unaware that rhino were killed when their horns were taken.
Anti-poaching campaigns therefore had to focus on how "uncool and foolish" horn users looked, rather than how the rhino looked when their horns were removed.
Vietnamese officials also had to strengthen enforcement of what was theoretically a strong legal framework.
"They [users] see no consequences. There has never been a prosecution or conviction for consumption of rhino horn," Doak said.
At least 618 rhino have been poached in South Africa this year. A total of 333 rhino were poached in 2010, 448 in 2011, and 668 last year. World Rhino Day is on Sunday.
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