- 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.

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