Black Business: Illegal Rhino Horn Trade Dynamics in Nhi Khe, Viet Nam, from a Criminal Perspective

This case study describes the dynamics of rhino horn trafficking in Nhi Khe, Vietnam, and the fluctuations of the value of raw rhino horn presented to our undercover operatives during the course of our field investigations.

The value of Rhino Horn  

Demand for rhino horn has grown exponentially over the last ten years, fuelling an unprecedented slaughter of rhinos in Africa, and to a lesser extent in India. To provide some insight into the scale of the current problem, in South Africa alone, the number of rhinos killed in 2007 was reported as low as 13, yet by 2016 this number had risen to 10541. While this signalled a decrease from the highest figure reported in 2014 of 1215 poached rhinos, levels are still significant and leaves little room for complacency.

In early August 2017, the WJC were offered 76 rhino horns (comprising both front and back horns) in one single incident, highlighting the organised nature of this trade, where subjects are trading in great volume. This assessment describes the dynamics of rhino horn trafficking in Nhi Khe (Vietnam) and the fluctuations of the value of raw rhino horn presented to our undercover operatives during the course of our field investigations and hopes to inform the wider debate on what drives the demand for rhino horn.

Nhi Khe predominantly targets a Chinese clientele, with the larger shops arranging the smuggling of products into China. Interpreters were seen to play a pivotal role in connecting Chinese buyers with traders and facilitating negotiations. In addition to the physical trade occurring on premises in Nhi Khe, we noted the widespread use of WeChat, and to a lesser extent, Facebook to advertise illegal wildlife products. Vietnamese traders were found to use Chinese bank accounts for the receipt of payments for wildlife products, thus facilitating money laundering and the movement of significant illicit financial flows. In addition, we observed an emerging trend of Chinese buyers using WeChat Wallet, a payment application within WeChat, to pay Vietnamese suppliers for goods purchased. Of particular note, was the extent to which this network was involved in the large-scale trafficking of rhino horn.


76 rhino horns presented to WJC, August 2017.

Why is the Wildlife Justice Commission releasing this report? 

The Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) was established in March 2015 with the goal of exposing and assisting in the disruption of transnational organised wildlife crime. Its first investigation revealed a major criminal network involved in trafficking the parts and products of several CITES Appendix I listed species and centred upon the small village of Nhi Khe, Viet Nam. The investigation resulted in a Case File and over 5000 pages of evidence against 51 subjects, and was first submitted to authorities in Viet Nam in January 2016 and to China in February 2016. Further evidence was collected during the second part of the investigation conducted from January-June 2016, and submitted to Vietnamese and Chinese authorities as an Update of the Case File in August 2016.

A Criminal Enterprise with Role and Responsibilities 

Certain aspects of the way in which illegal trade occurred in the village are synonymous with that of a criminal business and demonstrates how Nhi Khe operations are consistent with that of a legitimate business. We found the illegal trade operations (from acquisition to customer delivery) mirrored stages of a legitimate business.

Examples of business rules found operational in Nhi Khe, included:

• Discounts offered if higher quantities of goods are purchased in bulk;

• Deposits paid up front (mainly quoted between 20-30%);

• Refunds offered if the shipment is intercepted by enforcement agencies;

• Clear roles of individuals along the chain facilitating the movement of goods from source to consumer;

• Use of international bank accounts.