- Associated Press - Thursday, April 12, 2012

HANOI — Nguyen Huong Giang loves to party but loathes hangovers, so she ends her whiskey benders by tossing back shots of rhino horn ground with water on a special ceramic plate.

Her father gave her the 4-inch brown horn as a gift, claiming it cures everything from headaches to cancer.

Vietnam has become so obsessed with the fingernail-like substance it now sells for more than cocaine.

“I don’t know how much it costs,” said Ms. Giang, 24, after showing off the horn in her high-rise apartment overlooking the capital. “I only know it’s expensive.”

Experts say Vietnam’s surging demand is threatening to wipe out the world’s remaining rhinoceros populations, which recovered from the brink of extinction after the 1970s thanks to conservation campaigns.

Illegal killings in Africa hit the highest recorded level in 2011 and are expected to worsen this year.

Last week South Africa called for renewed cooperation with Vietnam after a “shocking number” of rhinos have already been reported killed this year.

China has long valued rhino horn for its purported - though unproven - medicinal properties. But U.S. officials and international wildlife experts now say Vietnam’s recent intense craving, blamed partly on a widespread rumor that rhino horn cures cancer, is putting unprecedented pressure on the world’s estimated 28,000 remaining animals, mainly in South Africa.

“It’s a very dire situation,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said by telephone. “We have very little cushion for these populations in the wild.”

High demand, low supply

Although data on the global rhino horn trade is scarce, poaching in Africa has soared in the past two years, with American officials saying China and Vietnam are driving the trade that has no “significant” end market in the United States.

Wildlife advocates say that over the past decade rhino horn has become a must-have luxury item for some Vietnamese nouveau riche, alongside Gucci bags and expensive Maybach cars.

Between 2006 and 2008, three diplomats at the Vietnamese Embassy in Pretoria were linked to embarrassing rhino trafficking scandals - including one caught on tape.

In February, U.S. agents broke up an interstate rhino horn trafficking syndicate with Vietnamese-American ringleaders.

According to a court affidavit obtained by the Associated Press, Felix Kha, one of the alleged traffickers arrested in the recent U.S. bust, traveled to China 12 times between 2004 and 2011 and to Vietnam five times last year.

“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.