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“There are still horns going into China but Vietnam is driving the increase in poaching for horns,” said Chris R. Shepherd, deputy regional director for Southeast Asia at the wildlife advocacy group Traffic. “Vietnamese authorities really need to step up their efforts to find out who is behind horn trafficking … and put them out of business.”

The rhino horn craze offers bigger payoffs than other exotic wildlife products such as bear bile or tiger bone paste. American officials say the crushed powder fetches up to $25,000 per pound in Asia - a price that can top the U.S. street value of cocaine, making the hooflike substance literally as valuable as gold.

The drive is so intense that thieves now are taking rhino horns from European museums and taxidermy shops, sometimes smashing them off with sledgehammers before fleeing.

According to Europol, the European law enforcement agency, 72 rhino horns were stolen from 15 European countries in 2011, the first year such data was recorded.

Poachers in South Africa also are using chain saws to shear off rhinos’ horns, mutilating the hulky animals while they’re still alive and leaving oozing bloody cavities in the heads of those lucky enough to survive.

Sometimes, they simply shoot the beasts, even though the horns can grow back within two years without harming the animal if carefully cut.

Diplomatic connection

Officials and nonprofits in South Africa are pre-emptively cutting some rhinos’ horns in an attempt to save them, but some poachers are killing anyway just for the nubs.

Vietnam wiped out its own last known Javan rhinoceros in 2010, despite the country’s earlier efforts to protect it. The last of the population was found dead in a national park, shot through the leg with its horn hacked off.

Laws in Vietnam surrounding the business of importing horns are murky and crackdowns are rare despite government pledges to root out traffickers.

Officially, no more than 60 horns are legally imported into Vietnam as trophies bagged from South African game farms each year. But international wildlife experts have estimated the actual number of trophy horns taken by Vietnamese nationals from South Africa each year might exceed 100.

Last week, the South African government said it was working with the Vietnamese to stop the potential abuse of hunting permits. Hanoi also has been asked to conduct inspections to make sure rhino trophies imported from South Africa remain in the hunters’ possession.