Rhino horn has played a role in traditional Chinese medicine for nearly 1,800 years, but in the 1980s and 90s, a concerted effort was made to limit demand for the horn. Trade bans within Asian countries reduced poacher’s ability to sell horns on the Asian continent, and the removal of rhino horn powder from Chinese pharmacies dramatically reduced demand. Rhino horn, however, was still valuable and available through underground markets, resulting in around fifteen rhinos being poached from preserves in South Africa from 1990 to 2007. The horns poachers gained at the time sold for $250-$500 per kilogram.
However, in 2008, things changed. That year alone saw eighty-three rhinos killed for their horns on protected land in South Africa. The following year saw one hundred and twenty-two. By 2012, rhinos were being hunted and killed at a rate of nearly seven hundred per year, or almost two a day, every day.
Experts believe the sudden resurgence of demand for rhino horn coincides with a rumor that swept across Vietnam in the mid-2000s. The belief that a local politician had been cured of cancer by using a regimen that included crushed rhino horn has become so widespread that even some doctors in Vietnam have taken to prescribing the placebo to patients, or recommending that they find an illegal pharmacy that can provide the product.
Unlike previous demand for rhino horn, this trend in pseudo-medicine has no ties to traditional Chinese medicine, and seems to be born entirely out of popular belief. Some believe it is due to the rapidly developing economy in Vietnam providing an increase in disposable income, while medical treatments for illnesses like cancer have remained woefully behind the rest of the developed world. This leaves patients with severe ailments and limited treatment options – creating a bubble market for anything people believe can help them.