If the thought of wearing fur makes you shudder, here’s something you’ll definitely want to leave off your holiday wish list this year: rhinoceros horn jewelry. The fashion accessory – created at the expense of poached rhinos – is particularly trendy in China and Vietnam at the moment.
As if rhino horns weren’t already in high enough demand. Although it lacks any scientific basis, some Asian cultures believe that rhinoceros horns have medicinal properties, making them hot ticket items on the black market. Now that customers want to not only consume, but also wear the horns, the poaching of rhinos is more pervasive than ever.
In an in depth undercover investigation for National Geographic, Karl Ammann visited shops in Asia to confirm that the rumored sale of illegal rhino horns jewelry was legitimate. Sadly, it didn’t take him long at all to locate vendors selling horn jewelry in plain sight. One seller even invited Ammann into his workshop to show him how they cut the bottom half of horns into round rings to create bracelets.
As Ammann “befriended” the sellers, he was able to learn more about the unscrupulous business. Poachers would kill rhinos in Africa and sneak them out – generally through Kenya. The horns were disguised as wood in order to pass through border checkpoints, but the shopkeepers reported that it was relatively easy to smuggle the horns from one country to another.
Though a carved up rhino horn is subjectively not any prettier than synthetic materials, the rarity is the appeal of the jewelry for rich Chinese and Vietnams individuals. Since most people can’t dream of affording the horn bracelets — sold at $10,000-15,000 (US) each — the items become a status symbol. Authentic rhinoceros jewelry signifies to friends and neighbors that the owner has massive disposable income.
Of all the ways that exist for rich people to flaunt their wealth, it’s unfortunate that one that comes at the cost of a beautiful creature has grown so trendy. Because of the premium on their horns, some species have been pushed to the point of endangered status and – in the case of the Western Black Rhino – extinction.
While you might imagine that illicit jewelry creators would worry about running out of supply as the rhino population dwindles, as far as Ammann can tell, that’s not actually a concern for them. There’s a fortune to be made now, so to hell with the future. In fact, the rarer rhinos become, the more they can raise the prices on their existing products. As Ammann notes, in one part of China he visited, the price of rhino horns has more than doubled in the past three years alone.
This summer, the South African government announced a controversial plan to potentially help save existing rhinos. In possession of a billion dollars worth of rhino horns, South Africa is seeking international approval to sell them in order to “flood” the market and discourage further poaching. However, critics of this scheme are worried that increasing the accessibility of horns will just help to create additional customers, which will necessitate more poaching in the future.
The best plan to cut down on rhino horn jewelry is for the international community to put more pressure on Asia to take a firm stand against the practice. Recently, for the first time ever, Hong Kong intercepted an illegal horn and ivory shipment and took the necessary steps to allow for prosecution of the involved parties.
Hopefully, one way or another, rhinoceros jewelry – like most other fashion trends – will go out of style permanently.