New insights into rhino horn consumers

PTES has been supporting Dang Vu Hoai Nam, a PhD Fellow from the University of Copenhagen, to investigate issues surrounding rhino horn consumption. Nam and his team’s multiple PTES-funded studies have shed light on what motivates people to buy rhino horn and the socio-psychological factors that drive that demand. Their results have contributed significantly to answering the most heatedly debated question in rhino conservation: should we legalise the international trade in rhino horn?

What motivates rhino horn consumers and how can we use that to reduce demand?

Demand for rhino horn in Asian markets, especially China and Vietnam, has driven the rhino poaching crisis, decimating the remaining rhino populations in Africa. Understanding consumer behaviours and motivations is critical if we want to design effective policies and interventions to change peoples’ behaviour to reduce demand. However, collecting data about rhino horn consumers is a daunting task. Most of them are senior and very wealthy individuals, are notoriously averse to investigations into their behaviour, which can be seen or perceived as sensitive, and aren’t keen to participate either online or by telephone. All these factors mean there is a huge gap in research and knowledge about the rhino horn trade and reasons behind its consumption. This then leads to misleading information being spread by international media which then undermines demand reduction efforts.

How can we interview the super-rich about their illicit consumption of rhino horn?

Nam, who has extensive experience in this subject, has proposed and tested a new approach to address this gap. Nam discovered that who does the questioning and how it is done is just as important as the questions being asked. They identified key networks of the super-rich and worked hard to win their trust. Using this personal approach, Nam and his team successfully interviewed nearly 1,000 rhino horn consumers in Vietnam. Soliciting such interviews requires skills that go above and beyond. His team: Nam himself, a tennis coach, a golfer-cum-tennis-player and Nam’s flamboyant seafood business-owner neighbour possessed a winning sense of humour, colourful life experience and true grit. They learned that one of the key questions when studying rhino horn consumers is of why they agree to be interviewed, in the first place. Building a relationship based on trust and understanding their motivations is critical. Once trust was earned, the interview process was much smoother and easier.

What motivates people to buy and use rhino horn?

Solving this conundrum, Nam has developed a new theoretical model to predict what motivates people to buy rhino horn. It relies to a large extent on consumers’ beliefs about their control over this behaviour, whether they have sufficient disposable income to purchase rhino horn, whether they know a supplier and how to use this product. Habit also plays a role. Consumers with experience using rhino horn are more likely to think about purchasing it in the future.

Nam’s research assistant and a rhino horn consumer. Credit: Dang Vu Hoai Nam.

Will a legal trade in rhino horn reduce poaching?

Nam and his team have also used choice experiments to study what the impact of legalising the international trade in rhino horn would be on consumer preferences and trade-offs. Consumers tend to prefer and are willing to pay more for wild than semi-wild and farmed rhino horn. They also show the strongest preference for legal horn, but higher-income consumers are less concerned about legality. Nam found that a legal trade will likely continue to face competition from a parallel black market. Whether poaching would be reduced depends on the legal supply of wild and semi-wild horns, the success of any campaigns to change consumer preferences, and regulation efforts. Nam also found that rhino horn used for health-related purposes in Vietnam is not considered a luxury but a normal purchase.

The insights that Nam and his team have revealed into the complex behaviour driving one aspect of the wildlife trade can now be used to help address and reduce the demand. Nam is continuing to study the impacts of Chinese policies and regulations on the rhino horn market. We look forward to hearing more from him soon.

Thank you for helping us fund this research to reduce demand for rhino horn in Vietnam.

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